This lovely film, a kind of "Babette's Dessert," is the magic-realist story of how one day, early in 1959, the north wind blows the wise and beautiful Vianne (Juliette Binoche) and her beautiful little girl Anouk (Victoire Thivisol) into a dark and gloomy French river town, where everyone is under the influence of the dark and gloomy mayor, the rigidly Catholic Comte de Reynaud (Alfred Molina).
Vianne brings with her the heritage of her own mother, a knowledge of wonderfully mysterious New World spices, that have the ability to transform those who eat them from what you might call the living dead into the totally alive. NewYork Times critic Elvis Mitchell calls the film 'The Invasion of the Molé People,' as Vianne sets up her chocolaterie and begins offering tempting samples and making friends. Unfortunately it's the start of Lent, and the town, under heavy pressure from M. le Comte, tries not to have anything to do with her. Only the outcasts respond, including her landlady Amande (Judi Dench) and the battered and humiliated Josephine (Lena Olin).
Director Lasse Hallstrom takes his time, letting us get to know the village and its little secrets and lies, but he doesn't overdo the melodrama. No one is a cartoon figure or stereotype, except perhaps Josephine's brutal husband Serge (Peter Stormare). Even the Comte is a prisoner of his own fears of humiliation, using his almost medieval orthodoxy as a defense against the sad truth of his own life.
The film wobbles a bit in the middle, with the introduction of the Irish river rogue Roux (Johnny Depp), a gypsy who plays entrancing riffs on his guitar and would normally be the new (male) life force in the film. But because Binoche is already the life force there's no empty space for Depp's character to fill, and so he remains more on the fringe than we would expect.
The secret in any magical film is to play and direct it as though it were absolute truth, a documentary of the events as they happen, and Hallstrom and his screenwriter Robert Nelson Jacobs (working from the novel by Joanne Harris) are careful not to let the magic overwhelm the story. We see real people, with human problems and pleasures, and the one melodramatic moment in the film -- a moment that could have undone our suspension of disbelief -- is resolved without tragedy.
Binoche is extraordinary here; she does not play on her beauty but on the warmth and understanding her character has acquired through the years of wandering. At the same time she lets us see the emptiness of a life without a home, and there is much in her relationship with Anouk that will make you cry at the thought of another north wind that could take them away once more.
Once again, Judi Dench is a miracle to watch. She plays an aging, sour, puffy, heavy-legged woman who is now beyond the need for approval by others, and with no more than the least gesture or word she makes all of that clear to us, so that willingly and helplessly we fall in love with her. Alfred Molina, whose character comes closest to caricature, sidesteps it neatly and plays out his own confusion and horror at the consequences of his words. Though the cast is a mix of European, British and American actors, I did not mind the range of accents: from light French to light Irish to standard English to indeterminate latinate they work as well as any other approach, and it would have been death to the film to try and make them all speak alike.
There isn't very much weight to "Chocolat," as befits a sugary dessert -- even with those hot and spicy Latin American condiments -- but like a great dessert we remember it fondly afterwards