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The ViewAuckland Review

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Review byMatthew Turner1/03/2001

Three out of five stars
Running time: 121 mins

Whimsical, overly sugary tale that has unaccountably garnered a host of Oscar nominations.

It is generally accepted in Hollywood this year that Chocolat’s surprise showing in four of the major Oscar nomination categories (Best Picture, Actress, Supporting Actress and Screenplay) is largely down to the unparalleled lobbying powers of Harvey Weinstein and Miramax.

If that’s the case, then they must have sent a complimentary basketful of chocolatey goodies with every preview cassette, because no matter how sweet Chocolat is, it certainly doesn’t deserve a place alongside the other Best Picture nominees and is bound to suffer under the weight of the resulting expectation placed upon it.

The film is set in a provincial French town in 1960, where everyone is deeply religious, and the local Mayor (Alfred Molina) has set himself up as the town’s moral guardian, with the aid of the timid and easily-coerced priest (Hugh O’Connor – last seen in The Young Poisoner’s Handbook).

Into the cold and grey town comes Vianne (Juliette Binoche), a beautiful unmarried woman with a young daughter (Victoire Thivisol, who was so excellent in the 1996 film Ponette) – both clad in rich red cloaks that make them look like a pair of Red Riding Hoods. Vianne immediately opens a chocolaterie (during Lent, no less) and incurs the wrath of the Mayor who tries everything in his power to keep the villagers from her shop.

However, the Mayor has reckoned without the mystical powers contained within Vianne’s chocolates (it’s never clearly explained, but South America and chili powders are involved somehow, just as they were in the recent Penelope Cruz vehicle Woman On Top).

Soon the chocolates are working their magic on selected villagers, including cranky landlady Armande (Judi Dench – also nominated) who is estranged from her daughter (Carrie-Ann Moss) and grandson, battered wife Lena Olin (director Hallstrom’s real-life wife), kindly old man Guillaume (John Wood) who harbours a crush on a local widow (one-time French starlet Leslie Caron), and a local couple for whom the chocolate acts as a sort of confectionary version of viagra.

Vianne also gets her own love interest in the form of Johnny Depp’s Roux, a vaguely Irish ‘river rat’, whose presence also serves to further irritate the Mayor and his gathering crusade against ‘immorality’.

No prizes, then, for guessing how it all ends up. This, in fact, is the film’s main problem – it lacks any real depth or bite, so that you’re never in any doubt whatsoever as to the outcome of the film.

A film like this should either have you weeping copiously, or send you out into the streets with a warm glow and a spring in your step, and this achieves neither, perhaps because Vianne is never at any point in danger of actually losing anything.

That said, the film has a delightfully international cast who all play their parts perfectly. Binoche is radiant and stunningly gorgeous throughout the film, and Thivisol solidifies her reputation as a child star to watch.

There are a few nice moments and some memorably striking shots (specifically Binoche and Thivisol in their red cloaks), but ultimately, the basic theme was handled much better in 1993’s Like Water For Chocolate, and Chocolat never moves you the way it so desperately wants to.

In short, then, this is by no means a bad movie and is, on balance, worth seeing. However, it’s not the great film you might have expected given its Oscar nominations, and you’re likely to find it diverting yet forgettable, rather than charming and emotionally rewarding.

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Content updated: 24/10/2019 19:24

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