Director Lasse Hallstrom has a thing for outsiders. Many of his films deal with a protagonist who does not fit in with the majority in some way. What's Eating Gilbert Grape and The Cider House Rules each touch upon this theme, as does his latest film, Chocolat. This time, Vianne (Juliette Binoche, Les Enfants, du Siecle, Alice and Martin) is the outsider, an independent-thinking woman trying to live in a village of close-minded people. Vianne comes to town and has the gall to open a chocolate store at the onset of Lent. The mayor, Comte de Reynaud (Alfred Molina, Magnolia, Texas Rangers) is furious. He is the man behind the town's way of thought. He is a strict Catholic, shunning all things he considers immoral and exerting his thoughts through the local church.

Chocolat is an independent movie pretending to be a mainstream movie. It has a very foreign flavor. It is set in France and has dreamlike cinematography. The cast is a veritable legion of foreign actors, from Binoche and Dame Judi Dench (Tomorrow Never Dies) to Lena Olin (The Ninth Gate) and Peter Stormare (Dancer in the Dark). Hallstrom and writer Robert Nelson Jacobs (adapting the novel by Joanne Harris) temper this with the universal theme of change. If the story sounds familiar, it is. The main thing different is the setting, everything else seems like the typical romantic comedy. There is also a genial sense of humor, large amount of warmth, and sumptuous amounts of chocolate. It is the chocolate that kickstarts the change the townsfolk experience.

In a strictly religious town, Vianne is an atheist and single mother. Reynaud takes an instant disliking to her, and spreads viscious rumors. Yet she is willing to make friends with the town outcasts, and always is willing to give away free samples of her chocolates. She does what she thinks is right, which is helping people solve their problems. This is counter to all of Reynaud's beliefs. When Roux (Johnny Depp, The Ninth Gate, Sleepy Hollow), a gypsy shows up, Vianne befriends him partially to spite Reynaud. He is another outsider shunned by the town, and he and Vianne begin a slow relationship.

Vianne refuses to give answers, and this is the type of character that seems perfect for Binoche. Binoche carries with her an aura of mystique, augmented by her deep eyes and prominent cheekbones. Her face is hard to read, as if it contains some deep secret. The other performances are good also. Dench takes her Queen Elizabeth role a couple steps further, turning her role as Armande into a crusty, feisty old woman. Dench and Olin are sometimes unrecognizable, as is Carrie-Anne Moss (The Crew, Red Planet), who actually fares pretty well in the company of such talent. Each minor character has some problem that only Vianne can fix (with ample help from her delicious chocolate). Hallstrom always manages to take a larger story and put a human face to it. Vianne is the focus here, at the center of a story that feels large yet intimate, and all-around enjoyable.

Mongoose Rates It: Pretty Good.
2 hours, 1 minute, Rated PG-13 for a scene of sexuality and some violence.

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