The Hundred-Foot Journey, starring Helen Mirren, is an engaging new film from Dreamworks, which opens on August 8. Directed by Lasse Hallstrom and based on the novel by Richard C. Morais, the story concerns a family from India that moves to France and opens up a restaurant directly across the street from Mirren’s upscale establishment, and the conflicts that result. One of the secondary themes, as expressed by the young sous chef played by Charlotte Le Bon, is the idea that “food is memory,” that tastes and smells are tied to emotional experiences. A good illustration of this idea is the Pixar film Ratatouille, in which the critic finds that a single bite of the title dish instantly transports him to childhood and his mother’s care. That moment is echoed here.
The Hundred-Foot Journey starts with a young boy named Hassan Kadam (played by Rohan Chand as a child and Manish Dayal as an adult), second son of an Indian restauranteur; Hassan has a gift for appreciating and combining flavors, the culinary equivalent of “perfect pitch.” He shows great promise in the kitchen while learning in the restaurant kitchen beside his mother; when the family business is destroyed during a political protest, the Kadam family flees to London before eventually crossing the Channel to seek a new home in Europe. When their car breaks down in the south of France, Papa (Om Puri) declares that they have traveled enough and will settle here in the village of Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val. They are befriended by kind and sweet Marguerite (Le Bon), who helps them with their car, and when Papa finds a vacant building, he decides that this is the perfect location for an Indian restaurant, “Maison Mumbai.” Unfortunately, it happens to be directly across the street from Le Saule Pleureur, the Michelin-star-bearing classical French restaurant owned and operated by the formidable Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren), who takes a dim view of her new competition. To complicate matters, Marguerite is the sous chef at Le Saule Pleureur, making Hassan “the enemy.”
Over time, Hassan’s fascination with French haute cuisine (and with Marguerite) and his extraordinary ability to combine the flavors of his adopted and native countries leads him to cross the hundred feet from the front door of his family’s restaurant to the front door of Madame Mallory’s, seeking instruction.
Although The Hundred-Foot Journey is a foodie’s delight, with many discussions of “the five sauces,” fresh vegetables and traditional dishes both European and Indian, and lingering shots of elaborately-prepared meals, all of that is really secondary to the characters and their relationships. Dayal’s Hassan is awkwardly charming when first we meet him, gradually growing in confidence as his career advances, and the on-and-off relationship with Marguerite unfolds naturally and appealingly, as does the growing friendliness between other members of the cast.
Like other Hallstrom films (Chocolat, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, My Life As a Dog), The Hundred-Foot Journey rolls out at a deliberate pace; nothing is rushed, but nothing seems to drag; each scene takes whatever time it needs, and the result is a film that seems to go by quickly without seeming short. There are no big dramatic moments or surprising character turns; the dramatic moments are human and natural and feel right, and the little scenes of Marguerite and Hassan talking about ingredients and cooking (and trying not to fall in love) are lovely.
If you’re looking for an alternative to big noisy CGI spectacle and explosions at the multiplex, The Hundred-Foot Journey should be on your menu.