Saturday, September 13, 2014

The Hundred-Foot Journey, Sometimes the Film is as Good as the Novel

I just caught myself. I was planning to say that the film, "The Hundred-Foot Journey," was better than the novel by Richard Morais, but that would not have been a fair assessment. After all, I finished the book last week, but Don and I just this minute returned from the theatre. The smell of  roasted pheasant still teases my nostrils and the bright, autumn colors of the vegetables in the open-air market are lingering in my mind's eye. Yum!

The Hundred-Foot Journey

I just adore books and movies about food, those who prepare it and those who relish it. Who doesn't remember "Like Water for Chocolate?" What about "Eat, Drink, Man, Woman?" "Big Night?" It's been a while since "Julie and Julia," and I was ripe for a new duo. Along came Richard Morais's tale about a clash of cultures, a novel that was actually released back in 2008 but which only came to my attention after the movie's release.

The story is about the large, boisterous, loving Haji family whose enormously successful restaurant in Mumbai was burned to the ground during a political regime change. The matriarch of the family was killed and the Hajis fled to London where they got by but never truly assimilated. Still grieving his wife's death, Papa Haji piled the family into the car and took to the road, searching throughout Europe for a true home.

Et voila! Lumiere, France. (not a real place, I was ready to book a trip!) Here, in the heart of France, the Hajis take the town by storm, remodeling an abandoned estate and opening Maison Mumbai in the heart of haute cuisine country, to the horror of Madame Gertrude Mallory, proprietress of the Michelin starred inn, Le Saule Pleurer, on the opposite side of the street.

War ensues as Madame Mallory and Papa Haji each tries to undermine the other's business. The staid customers at Madame's restaurant are served ferociously expensive yet parsimonious servings of perfectly prepared French foods while the townspeople chow down ebulliently on the curries and tandoori served by chef Hassan Haji only one hundred feet across the road.

Now one might say they've heard this story a thousand times before but it's all in the telling, isn't it? Personally, I never tire of tales in which people break down barriers, learn to see the world in new ways, to appreciate differences. While the estimable Helen Mirren does a pitch-perfect job as the cold, self-involved, Gertrude Mallory, she almost forfeits several scenes to the soulful young man (Manish Dayal) who plays her inevitable protégée, Hassan Haji.

The film is a beautifully executed rendition of the novel by Mr. Morais. Why the reviews were so tepid I'll never understand. There are glorious close-ups of a simple, perfect egg yolk as it plops into a glass bowl. There is Ms. Mirren's face when she first tastes Hassan's poached pheasant and realizes that she has met a natural chef, a young man born to create food with all of his senses. There is burgeoning love, between boys and girls, men and women, and a town willing to open its arms to so-called outsiders. And there's the power of family, of roots, of being able to blend the old and the new.

If you're tired of non-stop violence in the news or in your reading, take a break. Make that hundred foot journey to your local library for the book. Then hop on Fandango and grab a ticket to the movie. It won't be around long, the good ones never are.

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