Even Juliette Binoche cannot redeem Lasse Hallstrom's sickly, soft-centred confection, says Peter Bradshaw

This is a gooey, sticky, mushy, sickly-sweet confection of a movie; it tastes much more like the dairy milk chocolate proffered to the uneducated Gump-ish palates of Britain and America than the dark, bitter substance preferred by the discerning French. Watching this very self-conscious comedy-romance is a bit like being forced to eat a Thornton's factory out of business.

Chocolat is directed by Lasse Hallstrom, the man who in The Cider House Rules took the themes of racial prejudice and sexual abuse and suffused them in a weirdly benign glow. Hallstrom turns the feelgood bestseller by British author Joanne Harris into what looks like a two-hour version of one of those TV ads targeted patronisingly at the female consumer, coyly suggesting that chocolate is the new sex, or maybe that sex is the new chocolate. It certainly suggests that filling your face with chocolate is a richly joyous, warmly sensual, life-affirming and above all giving experience - and in itself a devastating rebuke to the tyrannies of the Roman Catholic church.

It's got a strong cast doing their best. Only a churl would not feel his heart lift at the sight of the star, Juliette Binoche. Her grace, beauty and intelligence are subjects on which I have descanted in the past, and to which I shall return when Michael Haneke's Code Unknown is released later this year. But here she is let down by having to play the ineffably smug part of Vianne, a free-spirited woman who turns up in an uptight French town in the late 1950s. It is here that a Clochemerlesque comedy unfolds.

Accompanied by her daughter Anouk (Victoire Thivisol), Binoche opens up a chocolaterie - presumably drawing upon a substantial reserve of capital - and mischievously yet adorably unlocks the sensuality of the townsfolk. This she does with her strangely saucy creations. She is aided and abetted by her elderly landlady Armande, played with vigour and poise by Judi Dench.

Unhappily, however, Binoche's heroine has chosen the beginning of Lent for this adventure and, worse, proposes a (preposterous) "chocolate festival" to coincide with Easter Sunday. The cut of her jib offends the Comte de Reynaud, aristocratic mayor and pillar of the church, a right old misery-guts who sets out to ruin her. This role is gamely played by the superb Alfred Molina, all tightly buttoned discomfiture and sweaty, pop-eyed self-denial, displaced into ill-humoured disapproval of anyone else enjoying themselves.

Molina is a heavyweight performer who can pack a real punch. But only a fraction of his power is uncoiled the way it was in such parts as Kenneth Halliwell and John Ogden. And this is because of the way that Hallstrom emphasises the movie's whole naughty-but-nice ethos. Molina is supposed to be an unpleasant bigot, and when we fleetingly see Africans delivering the raw material for Binoche's shop, a racial dimension to the comte's loathing of the chocolaterie is, perhaps, subliminally suggested.

Furthermore, he refers in passing to his forebears having booted out the Huguenots. But Hallstrom presents us with an oddly flavourless, odourless, unhistorical sort of bigotry. The obvious subject, anti-semitism, is absent, and Molina has a line making it clear that he sincerely disapproved of collaborators during the war - hardly a convincing side for a reactionary Catholic toff to take, I suggest. No, the comte is obviously ripe for eventual redemption since, like everything in this film, he has a soft centre.

Bigotry is what brings us to the most groan-inducingly awful part of the film: Johnny Depp, playing a hunky riverboat traveller called Roux with a hunky ponytail and hunky facial hair. He is one of the Gypsies loathed by the comte. Roux is not on the screen for long, but it's quite long enough. Despite his character's name, Mr Depp has evidently decided that he is not comfortable with the 'Allo 'Allo Franglais voices imposed on everyone else, so he plays him as an Irishman with what is supposed to be an Irish accent. For this he ought to be shot at dawn, or preferably earlier. It's similar to the Gypsy he played in Sally Potter's The Man Who Cried, only much, much more embarrassing.

He's always to be found a-hummin' and a-strummin' on his guitar, a fascinating lone-wolf figure. Needless to say, Roux is the kindred spirit with whom Juliette elects to get it on for a rare bit of non-chocolate-oriented, off-camera loving. Then he is off, footloose force of nature that he is, taking with him our sincere good wishes and a heartfelt request that Mr Depp give the free-spirit Romany roles a miss from now on.

The sheer, unmitigated ickiness of the film is what gets you down in the end. That and the supercilious association of chocolate with sex. It's got all the taste and style of "erotic" chocolate body-paint kits on sale at British Home Stores.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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