Set mostly in rural France, the movie deals with the conflict between the Kadam family, refugees from political conflict in India, and Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren), when the Kadams open an exuberantly Indian bistro across the road from Mallory's elegant haute cuisine establishment. It's not so much that they are competition, but that she perceives that they lower the tone for her place, which already has one coveted star in the famous Michelin Guide, and Madame Mallory is striking for two, a rarified category where ambiance definitely matters.
Initially Madame Mallory stoops only to tricks and legal harassments that are overcome by Papa Kadam (Om Puri) and his family, but when some of her workers take things too far, guilt cracks her façade, and leads to a truce, eventual reconciliation, and ultimately far more than that.
Although Helen Mirren is the above-the-title star (at least for Western audiences) her role is actually the "heavy" and much of the film actually belongs to the indomitable Papa Kadam (Puri), his talented chef son, Hassan (Manish Dayal), and Mallory's sous-chef, Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon), all of whom are excellent. The main characters all take part in working out a complex emotional web dealing with relationships between Mallory and Papa, Mallory and Hassan, Hassan and Papa, and Hassan and Marguerite, with some surprising twists and turns.
We think Mirren is a wonderful actress, and have pretty much put her on the 'will see anything she does list," but one does have to wonder why she was cast instead of real-life French women such as Juliette Binoche or Marion Cotillard. Indeed, Ms. Mirren herself, in interviews, admits that her French accent is 'dodgy', but that she always wanted to be a "French actress" and so was glad of the role. One expects that, as an American production, it was felt that someone was needed who had both the acting 'chops' to balance the formidable Mr. Puri, and name recognition/'bankability' for the American audiences. In any case, Mirren is great in the role and perhaps the fact that she's not totally glamorous adds to her vulnerability.
Om Puri is a veteran actor with a long resume of both Indian and Western film roles, and is totally believable as the sometimes visionary, sometimes bullheaded, patriarch. Manish Dayal does a fine job as the young man who has inherited passion and talent for food from his martyred mother, and Charlotte Le Bon gives a solid nuanced performance as the open-minded yet ambitious chef he is attracted to.
The movie is very good looking, both scenically, and in the food preparation scenes (we came away hungry for both Indian and French food--). Kudos to the script writers for establishing that English is the common language between the French and the Hindi-speaking Kadams, which explains why much of the film is in that language, with occasional non-subtitled asides. (Not so easy to understand why English is spoken by the Kadams at home, or in the kitchen at "Le Saule Pleureur", but it's easy to accept in context.)
Interestingly, Le Saule Pleureur ("The Weeping Willow") is a genuine Michelin-starred restaurant located outside the village of Monteaux, near Avignon. One wonders what effect this film will have on their business. One hopes it will be positive.
All in all, an excellent, feel-good movie, and mostly family-friendly, for those younger people who have patience and understanding to follow the plot. No sex, no bad language (at least, not in English or the French I caught--), and minimal violence, although the scenes of rioting in India and the attack on "Maison Mumbai" in France are intense.
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