Marc Turtletaub’s film Puzzle begins at someone’s birthday party in a suburban family home on the East Coast. The camera finds Agnes (Kelly Macdonald) wandering through a crowd of people, carrying trays of food and drinks. Nobody acknowledges her presence in the room. She functions like a maid, serving the guests, visible only when something is needed.
The scene sets a tone: “Agnes has clearly made and decorated the cake,” Macdonald says. “She puts the candles in, lights them and then walks into the room where you think, ‘Who's it going to be?’ It tells you all you need to know going forward.”
Macdonald, who along with Turtletaub was recently in San Francisco for an advance screening of Puzzle, is best known for supporting other characters in films like Trainspotting, Gosford Park and No Country for Old Men. But in Puzzle, it's the other characters in the film who support her. A passive character like Agnes might recede into the background were it not for Macdonald’s sharp wit and unsentimental approach.
“I didn’t act harder or anything," she says. "I did what I always do for every role.”
Turtletaub laughs at her response, adding, “She said she didn't even realize that she was in every scene. She was number one on the call sheet. Kelly's not somebody who tries to draw attention to herself.” And neither is Agnes.
She’s defined by her role as a wife to Ronnie (Daniel Sherman) and as a mother to their two sons Gabe (Austin Abrams) and Ziggy (Bubba Weiler). Agnes makes breakfast every morning and dinner every night, goes grocery shopping, does the laundry and cleans the house.
"She does all that with a smile," Macdonald says. "It's not a life of complete drudgery. She's not a slave to these people. It's just the life she lives and she's not questioned it before.” Macdonald also describes her as “a delicate person."
"She is very sweet and very odd," she says. "She has these little games that she plays for her own entertainment.” But there’s not a single thing Agnes does for herself until she opens a brand new jigsaw puzzle someone brought to the party.
As the subject of a feature film, watching someone piece together a puzzle might sound dull. Turtletaub, though, invests Agnes’ puzzling scenes with a spiritual fervor, as if she’s performing an act of devotion, communing with God. The director credits his cinematographer, Chris Norr, with capturing that feeling visually.
“When we started talking about references, Norr and I talked about Ida the Pawel Pawlikowski movie, which is about a nun,” Turtletaub says.
According to Macdonald, Agnes looks different. "Costume-wise, she's not a modern woman. She's a little bit out of time,” she says.
Turtletaub explained the influence of Pawlikowski’s film. “There's a lot of negative space above Ida’s head," he says. "We liked the formality of it, the intentional framing and looking through rectangles. You'll see that in this movie, the camera's back and you're looking through a door frame at Agnes sitting in the distance.”
But the religiosity isn’t front and center. It’s just one aspect of Agnes' world, a part of her background. “Her journey takes her into a whole new place,” Turtletaub says. And that place is New York City, where she finds Robert (Irrfan Khan), another obsessive puzzler who prizes her jigsaw skills as much as he enjoys dismantling her shyness and reserve.
“Agnes has got this internal life,” Macdonald says. “She's surrounded by her family all the time, but she does not have anyone asking her any big questions about herself, and so the audience is finding out about her just by being in her company.”
'Puzzle' opens Friday, Aug. 3 at the Landmark Embarcadero Center in San Francisco.