I heard a story on Marketplace about how so many movie posters show women without heads. Like, they just show their bodies and their heads exist somewhere outside the poster’s boundaries. That story was more specifically about sexualization, but it’s also indicative of something we see way, way too often in movies, and in everyday life—women being stripped of their identity, or, if they’re allowed to have an identity, it’s usually one that exists only in relation to the men in their lives.
The Scottish actress Kelly Macdonald plays exactly such a woman in the new movie Puzzle. You might not recognize Macdonald’s name, but it’s likely you’ve seen her face. Still, she’s had few, if any, leading roles prior to Puzzle. Which is kind of baffling, because she’s always been good, and here, she’s exceptional.
Macdonald plays Agnes, wife to a mechanic and mother to two college-aged boys. I describe her that way, as a wife and mother, because as far as we can tell, that’s all she sees herself as. Her husband and sons love her, certainly, but they, too, really only see her as she functions in their lives.
Then one day she’s given a jigsaw puzzle, and she discovers that not only is she quite good at putting it together, but that it gives her something that’s all her own. She meets a man, played by the obscenely underappreciated Indian actor Irrfan Khan, who’s looking for a partner for a jigsaw puzzle tournament, and this all serves as a catalyst for Agnes to open up her view of her own life and what she wants out of it. But if it seems like she’s just trading one man for another, well, sometimes the pieces don’t all fit together the way you think they’re going to.
The movie takes a few shortcuts that make for some abrupt plot points, but it hardly matters given Macdonald’s performance. Much of the movie is focused on her face, which is extraordinary, sometimes conveying three emotions at once. And seeing Agnes’s journey in this way is fitting, given how much Hollywood seems to want to erase women’s faces.