Who does she think she is, the Queen or something? The accusation could be levelled at Helen Mirren once again in this comedy drama, eight years after her Oscar win for playing Her Majesty, only this time she’s holding her nose in the air because she disapproves of the smell of curry that comes wafting across the road into her Michelin-starred restaurant. Oh, and there’s the small matter of a French accent that would make the phoney gendarme from ‘Allo ‘Allo wince.
If you can tolerate the torture of innocent vowels, Mirren is on good form as Madame Mallory opposite the wickedly irascible Om Puri, of East Is East fame. Ostensibly, Manish Dayal is the star of the show as Puri’s eldest son and culinary whizz Hassan, but even the food outshines him, partly thanks to the way it is shot by director Lasse Hallstrom in tender, loving close-up – doing here for curry what he did for cocoa-based confection in Chocolat.
Working from the novel by Richard C Morais, Hallstrom arranges a very cute set-up in a sun-kissed village in the south of France, where Mallory’s polite French clientele are forced to dine just a hundred feet away from what looks like a theme park version of the Taj Mahal and endure the sensory overload of bright lights, Bollywood sounds and spicy smells. The conditions are ripe for mild amusement as Madame tries to keep calm and carry on, but she isn’t above employing a few dirty tricks to shut the curry house down.
You don’t need a signpost from here to there to see where this story is headed. Mirren is deft at being an awful snob and yet, the reason she remains watchable – and even sympathetic – is her natural ability to convey something else; she has a type of steel that can only come from hardship and a deep well of humanity. Puri works a similar trick behind a curtain of brash behaviour and their scenes together give the film much-needed oomph.
By contrast, Dayal and his tentative romance with Madame Mallory’s sous-chef (Charlotte Le Bon) is about as exciting as the warm wet flannel at the end of the meal while you anticipate the bill. It really just gets in the way of a more intriguing story of divided loyalties after Hassan asks Madame for the chance to train in her kitchen. Explicit scenes of food preparation will surely make mouths water and there’s an added frisson in the idea that Hassan, so consumed by his passion, is betraying his family by getting involved with it.
Recently, Jon Favreau’s Chef proved that you don’t need too many complications to make a good movie, but The Hundred-Foot Journey is a little different in that it ventures halfway to being a homily on race relations and cultural identity. In that regard, it’s far too simplistic and by the end, it’s still difficult to imagine Her Majesty Helen Mirren getting in with the Friday night vindaloo crowd. The movie appeals more to the part of you that might crave something sweet, comforting and hearty as the nights draw in.