Joanne Harris’ book is a rather different thing to this Miramax sentimentality fest, in which Juliette Binoche strikes a pose as Vianne Rocher, a travelling single mother who, with her six year old daughter, has the nerve to open a chocolaterie – with Sunday hours – in a tranquil and religious French village during Lent, to the horror of the local mayor the Comte de Reynaud (Alfred Molina) and assorted prudish villagers.
A shock to the system from the word “go” then, for in the book, Reynaud is in fact the village priest, making the story rather more intellectual in its encompassment of the religion-versus- secularism debate. By changing the character in the film to the town mayor, the Weinstein brothers (executive producers) will have mollified alarmed voices in the clergy, but what they have managed to do in addition is to produce light entertainment about good guys versus bad guys rather than analyse the issues which drive the plot and characters in the book. Other changes include Vianne’s daughter’s imaginary friend, Pantoufle, who is transformed from rabbit to kangaroo – and Vianne’s arrival is, on screen, on a bleak day, whereas the book vividly depicts a carnival as Vianne’s welcome.
All of this is to some extent a moot point, for Chocolat is a fable of a film, starting with the worrying line “Once upon a time”. The characters are played by a strudy cast with accents from near and far, negating the need for place and time, to some extent. Johnny Depp is an Irish river rat, exuding charisma and some rather excellent guitar playing, coupled with alarmingly long hair, yet he only appears half way through the film and is even then not around for very long. Juliette Binoche manages to sound unFrench, somehow, but she makes up for it with how she looks. Even the aerial shots of the rustic village look curiously computer-generated, like the scenes of the ship’s deck as the ship sets out on its voyage in Jim Cameron’s Titanic.
Alfred Molina looks and acts every bit the evil grandee as the Comte de Reynaud, Judi Dench is the cranky landlady of Binoche’s chocolaterie and manages to have an estranged daughter, who works for the Comte and has an artistic son. Binoche is stunning and as beautiful on screen as she ever has been, her costumes wrapping themselves around her and somehow emphasising the warm feeling she brings to her role.
Hallstrom has directed better films, but he seems to have embraced Hollywood sentimentality with some gusto these days and it is, for better or for worse, paying dividends. The Cider House Rules, his last movie, netted Academy Awards – and Chocolat is nominated this year for a couple too. Accept the film on its own terms – as confection – and you will enjoy it. You might do well to read Joanne Harris’ novel as well, however, before eating all the chocolate.