Early in her career, Helen Mirren specialized in playing hot-blooded schemers and even hotter-blooded seductresses. In films such as Hussy, The Long Good Friday, and The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, she combined the classic femme-fatale ingredients of smarts and sensuality into a molten cocktail of deliciously unpredictable danger. Now, at 69, Mirren seems to have become typecast as stern snoots and blue-blooded battle-axes. What happened? The obvious answer is that she got older in an industry that fetishizes youth, especially female youth. But I think there's something else at work. I'm convinced that Mirren was so indelible as the tough-as-nails inspector Jane Tennison on the excellent British series Prime Suspect that most folks including Hollywood casting directors have had a difficult time seeing past the hard edges and frosty hauteur that come so effortlessly to her. Mirren certainly starts off that way in Chocolat director Lasse Hallström's latest feel-good slice of food porn, The Hundred-Foot Journey. But one of the formulaic film's few surprises is how the marvelous actress slowly blossoms from a stubborn prig into a romantic softy. For the first time in ages, she lets us see the frisky grin behind the scowl.
Based on Richard C. Marais' 2010 novel and produced by Steven Spielberg and the queen of spoon-fed sentimentality, Oprah Winfrey The Hundred-Foot Journey is a culture-clash confection about two rival restaurateurs competing for the hearts and taste buds of the same sleepy French village. On one side of the street is Le Saule Pleureur, a Michelin-starred temple to foie gras, pigeon with truffles, and other refined delicacies lorded over by Mirren's condescending Madame Mallory. On the other is Maison Mumbai, an open-air bazaar of exotically earthy fare cooked with a sprinkle of turmeric and a heavy dose of love by the Kadam family. Madame does everything she can to foil the newcomers from India, not because she's a racist (the film makes a point of her firing her xenophobic French chef) but because their restaurant, with its roaming livestock and blaring bhangra music, offends her refined Gallic sensibilities. ''Who are zees people?'' she asks with her nose in the air and a stick firmly lodged up her derriere. It's war.
The battle unfolds with all the predictability of a train-station timetable. The Kadams, headed by the widowed patriarch (Om Puri) and his soulful chef son, Hassan (Manish Dayal), awaken the parochial palates of the hamlet's quirky residents. When Hassan proves to be just as gifted at conjuring up a mouthwatering béchamel sauce as he is with tandoori goat, Madame wants him to help her win a second Michelin star. (He also turns out to be a natural at wooing her sous chef, played by Charlotte Le Bon.) All of these by-the-numbers beats go down smoothly enough (at least until a jarring third-act detour sends Hassan to Paris). It's soothing, easily digested comfort food. Which is to say it's the perfect recipe for a filmmaker like Hallström.
The director of What's Eating Gilbert Grape and The Cider House Rules is a master at crafting a certain kind of well-appointed sap and manipulating audiences' tear ducts (I get a lump in my throat just thinking about his 2009 Richard Gere sobfest, Hachi: A Dog's Tale). But as talented as he is at eliciting Pavlovian emotional responses with his middlebrow melodramas, he also makes you resent him as soon as you crumple and toss your Kleenex. He rarely earns the catharsis he's after. Thankfully, here he has Mirren and Puri as his sparring leads. I never entirely bought the flirty détente between the two or believed in the rapturous power of a perfectly cooked sea urchin to solve the world's problems. But for two hours, at least, I swallowed it with a smile. B