Drawn from Joanne Harris' 1999 novel, Chocolat is a delectable fantasy that
 invokes the fragile spirit of the films of Maurice Pagnol (like
LA FEMME DE                       
) crossed with the magic realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Those
 who claim that Hollywood doesn't make them like they used to need only
 to venture out to see this fabulous motion picture.

         Voice-over narration establishes that the time is 1959 and the place is the
 small French town of Lansquenet, where things have more or less remained the
 same for over a century. Tradition and propriety reign, and they are overseen and
 enforced by the piously rigid mayor, the Compte de Reynaud (Alfred Molina). Just
 as the religious season of Lent begins (when Catholics traditionally deprive
 themselves of something of pleasure), the North Wind literally blows two
 red-hooded figures into town: the free-spirited Vianne (Juliette Binoche) and her
 daughter Anouk (Victoire Thivisol).

       Vianne rents an empty patisserie from the curmudgeonly Armande (Judi
 Dench) and opens a chocolaterie. Possessing mystical powers inherited from her
 own mother, she can intuit exactly which delicacy of hers will be someone's
 favorite along with recognizing their problems. These abilities eventually put
 her in direct conflict with Reynaud and his puppet, the local priest (Hugh
 O'Connor). Add to the fact that Vianne is unmarried and refuses to attend
 church services and she rises to the status of public enemy number one. Many
 of the townspeople, though, are drawn to the luscious smells and delicious
 tastes of her creations.

         Vianne is a giving soul and considers it her duty to help those in need.
 For example, through her ministrations, Armande is reunited with her grandson
 and the local kleptomaniac Josephine (Lena Olin) finds the courage to leave
 her abusive husband (Peter Stormare) to become Vianne's apprentice.

         When a roving band of tinkers arrive, and Vianne defies the mayor's
 orders to ignore them, the town becomes divided. One of the Irish gypsies,
 Roux (Johnny Depp), proves particularly intriguing; he's also the only person
 Vianne has encountered that she cannot predict which candy will be his favorite.
 The challenge makes him all the more intriguing and the pair gradually fall
 in love.

         Lasse Hallström, who scored a success with
 has directed with a deft touch. Calling on his background as a European
 filmmaker, he has crafted a beautifully realized fairy tale. (The film's opening
 lines are "Once upon a time, there was a quiet little village in the French
 countryside, where people believed in tranquillity. You knew your place in the
 scheme of things and, if you happened to forget, someone would remind you.")
 Hallström has also employed a fine production team who all do yeoman's work
 in creating the world of
CHOCOLAT, from the sumptuous cinematography of
 Roger Pratt  to the delightful production design of David Gropman to the lilting
 score composed by Rachel Portman.

         The key to the film's overwhelming success, though, is the fine script by
 Robert Nelson Jacobs and the brilliant cast. Any film that brings together such
 gorgeous and talented women as Juliette Binoche, Judi Dench, Carrie-Ann Moss,
 Lena Olin, Victoire Thivisol, and Leslie Caron would be noteworthy.
CHOCOLAT allows each to excel and achieve a personal best. If this film
 had been made some forty-odd years ago, Caron would probably have had
 the lead; here she portrays a widow who is afraid to defy convention and find
 a second chance with her longtime admirer (John Wood). Dench offers a
 virtuoso display of acting as the plain-speaking Armande while Carrie-Ann
 Moss forever leaves behind the "action chick" persona of
 as Dench's disapproving daughter. Eight year old Thivisol proves that her
 winning the Venice Film Festival Best Actress Award four years ago was
 no fluke. (She also portrayed Binoche's daughter in
LES ENFANTS DU SIÈCLE.)             
  Lena Olin, who just happens to be married to Lasse Hallström, has one of the
 best roles in her career as Josephine. Blossoming from a mousy victim of
 abuse to an empowered woman, she is luminous and heartbreaking.

         The supporting males all prove effective as well. O'Connor who had the
 title role in
THE YOUNG POISONER'S HANDBOOK has matured into a fine
 character player while Stormare is appropriately menacing as the drunken
 abuser. Although Depp occasionally struggles with his Irish accent, he cuts a
 fine romantic figure. Molina has perhaps the most difficult role but he ably
 makes this villain more than just the standard melodramatic figure.

         The key to the whole movie, though, is the actress playing Vianne and
 Hallström has been blessed with the incandescent Juliette Binoche. Just as in
 her Oscar-winning turn in
THE ENGLISH PATIENT, she provides the heart
 and soul of the film. The camera loves Binoche and she has rarely been cast
 as such a warm and engaging female. Displaying a playfulness and an
 understated sensuality, she is perfect as Vianne.

         While many have complained that 2000 was a less than stellar year
 for movies, this reviewer is grateful to Miramax for producing one of the
 year's best and most delightful surprises.
CHOCOLAT is that rare movie:
 an enjoyable and touching romantic fable for adults.

                            Rating:                   A
                            MPAA Rating:           PG-13 for a scene of sensuality
                                                                       and some violence
                            Running time:          121 mins.
© 2006 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.