The beatific charm of teaching to the choir

18th February 2005 at 00:00
The Chorus. General release March 11. Review Rating ***

Remember that scene in Dead Poets Society, where grateful pupils stand on their desks in tribute to inspirational teacher Robin Williams as he leaves the school in disgrace?

Move the action to France, add some singing, and you have the plot of The Chorus. This is not to detract from its appeal: Christophe Barratier's autobiographically - inspired drama is a nicely paced, competently acted tale of a failed musician in the 1940s, who becomes a form tutor at a grim boarding school for delinquent boys. Under the regime of sadistic principal M Rachin (Francois Berleaud), boys are punished with beatings, forced housework and solitary confinement.

Enter new teacher Clement Mathieu (Gerard Jugnot), beaming with beatific goodness and an unshakable belief in the boys' worth. Instead of punishing them, he drafts them into a choir. From a motley collection of out-of-key tearaways, they develop into motivated choristers, singing of "a surging wave of hope" as they emerge from the depths of despair.

The film is well-shot, with its drab-grey colourlessness perfectly capturing the boys' joyless world. And when their voices escape from the cell-like classrooms, it is genuinely moving.

But original it is not. From the start of the film, we know that M Mathieu will not have a long and happy career at the school, just as we know that the boys' lives will be irrevocably changed by his appointment. They may not stand on tables, but they hurl tributes from an upstairs window and sing in his honour.

And as soon as we meet Pierre Morhange (Jean-Baptiste Maunier), the troubled boy with the face of an angel and a devilish behaviour record, we know that he is destined to be the talented soloist whose painfully pure voice echoes every boy's suffering.

But this predictability is part of The Chorus' appeal. It does not seek to challenge or subvert, merely to charm. And the boys' singing rings heartrendingly true throughout. It is this, ultimately, that lifts The Chorus beyond the inspirational-teacher cliche. Dead Poets Society never sounded this good.

See The Chorus: free ticket offer in Friday magazine next week

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