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The Chorus (Les Choristes) (12A)



Review by: Jack Foley | Rating: Two

DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Making of documentary (72 minutes).

THE inspirational teacher has driven countless films down the years, from Dead Poets' Society to the more recent Coach Carter.

The Chorus - or Les Choristes as it was known in France - offers nothing new to the genre and pretty much does what is expected.

What it does have, however, is a huge amount of heart and a wonderfully understated central performance from Gérard Jugnot as the teacher in question, which helped it to become a box office smash in France, as well as the country's Oscar contender for this year's best foreign language film.

Indeed, its success, especially its Academy Award nomination, is almost as much a triumph of the underdog as the story in the film itself, given that it got picked ahead of Jean-Pierre Jeunet's high-flying A Very Long Engagement.

The film is set in 1949, as Jugnot's humble teacher, Mathieu, arrives at the Fond de l'Etang school for troubled children, a harsh educational facility that is governed with an iron fist by François Berléand's uptight principal (he believes in the motto, 'action-reaction').

Hence, whenever a boy steps out of line, his actions are dealt with by way of harsh retribution, even though the boys, themselves, seem willing to challenge the principal's resolve whenever possible.

Needless to say, they initially view the balding, middle-aged Mathieu as an easy figure of fun and set about taunting him at every opportunity, only to discover that he's on their side.

Indeed, Mathieu's resolve is such that he quickly wins an ally in the form of the school's elderly janitor, and sets about trying to tame the youngsters by forming a school chorus.

The stakes are raised, however, when Mathieu discovers a musical prodigy among them - Jean-Baptiste Maunier's handsome but rebellious Morhange - and sets about trying to tutor him for greater things.

But the ensuing lessons are far from easy, especially given the sceptical support of Berléand's reluctant principal, a number of persistently unruly children and the diverting attentions of Morhange's gorgeous mother (Marie Bunel), who is single and viewed as a possible love-interest for Mathieu.

You can pretty much guess the outcome as the boys strive to rise above their prejudices to grab the opportunities Mathieu has given them no matter what the eventual cost to himself.

Given its familiar premise, credit must go to director and co-writer, Christophe Barratier, for striking such a nice balance between the humour and the hardship without ever resorting to the Hollywood need to be overly manipulative.

Each character earns the audiences' sympathy and respect, making the bitter-sweet outcome worthy of the audiences' emotion.

And thanks to Jugnot's masterly turn, they have a plausible guide, an unlikely but completely loveable leading man, whose unselfish attitude and quiet resolve is, quite simply, inspirational.

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