There are remarkable films out there that do wonderful things with a very simple story, like this one: an Indian immigrant and his family make their way to France where they open a restaurant and he becomes one of the most celebrated chefs in Paris, but he finds fame lacking.
But that is basically the plot of The Hundred-Foot Journey, with a few side plots and a love interest or two thrown in. And maybe because of that, this movie is fun, light, enjoyable, and emotional, all while celebrating the universal appreciation of good food.
The story is this: Hassan is a chef trained by his mother to cook with flavors and smells. But his family is forced to flee India after political violence destroys their restaurant there and kills his mother. The family first make their way to England, but find their lives there unhappy and unfulfilling–mostly on a gastronomic level. Then they move to rural France, where they purchase a dilapidated restaurant right across the road from a very well established, Michelin one-star classical French restaurant run by Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren).
While Madame Mallory is perpetually in pursuit of a second Michelin star, she and her restaurant staff look down at the simple and non-French food that the Indian family is offering in their restaurant, and she works to try to undermine their success in several ways, none of which fully pays off. Meahwhile, Hassan is learning about French cooking from books lent to him by a sous chef in Mallory’s restaurant, and eventually he and the sous chef fall in love. But when vandals tag the property, set a fire in the building, and Hassan suffers burns in the fire, Mallory changes her tone, believing that racism has no place in cuisine.
Her acceptance turns to friendship with the family, and eventually, she becomes convinced of Hassan’s unique skill as a chef, and takes him on in her restaurant as an apprentice, promising to develop his skills further. He helps the restaurant earn the prized second Michelin star, and he soon goes to Paris as a result of the accolades, where he becomes a star chef, but finds his success empty because he misses his family, his former girlfriend, and the two-restaurants out on that country road.
As I said, it’s a remarkably simple story, performed well by both actors and director, who seem to effortlessly tell the story without doing anything over-the-top–with the possible exception of Mirren’s French accent, which was probably unnecessary, but understandable. The serious scenes are serious, and yet, there’s always a light and somewhat playful undertone to the whole story, because ultimately, you know all the way through the movie that you’re in for a happy ending, even with all of the drama and tragedy that everyone experiences.
I was more amazed to learn about the surprising amount of totally unobtrusive CGI that went into the film: half of the french restaurant didn’t actually exist, and the nighttime Paris views out of Hassan’s restaurant windows wasn’t real, either. In fact, it was so seamless that had I not watched the “making of” featurette on the DVD, I never would have known the depths of the cinematic trickery involved.
Ultimately, the film celebrates food–a cross-cultural appreciation of just how wonderful and amazing food can be in any culture (with the exception of English food, which was universally declared flavorless by Hassan’s family as they’re leaving the country). And good food is something that everyone can appreciate.
Four out of Five Stars.