Director: François Girard
Cast: Dustin Hoffman, Garrett Wareing
Watch The Choir online in the UK: Curzon Home Cinema / TalkTalk TV / iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Google Play
Dustin Hoffman stands in the middle of a church, surrounded by singing boys. He waves his hands, nods and issues two or three-word commands to the performers, who naturally understand them without fail. This, after all, is The Choir, a drama in which the act of singing is as sacred as Hoffman himself.
François Girard’s film, renamed from “Boychoir” in the US, wafts onto UK shores with the air of a public school boy – and the title of what could easily be a reality TV show. Neither feeling ever fades into the background, as we see ne’er-do-well Stet (newcomer Garrett Wareing) secure a place at a prestigious private school, courtesy of his rich, estranged dad. Why? Because the boy can sing. Boy, can he sing.
Inevitably, though, his fellow pupils aren’t too keen on a commoner letting his vocal chords loose on Fauré’s Requiem. Even Hoffman’s snooty second-in-command (Eddie Izzard, having a lot of fun) looks down on him, preferring his own soprano prodigy, Devon (an impressively loathsome Joe West). And so the stage is set for some harsh training montages and choirboy rivalries, which build up to a performance of Messiah, featuring a new descant that goes up to a top D.
There’s a lot to be said for a film that treats classical choristry so seriously in today’s age of blockbusters and super heroes, and fans of Handel and Britten will certainly not be disappointed: the singing sequences are sublimely easy on the ears. But between the mellifluous music scenes, Ben “Source Code” Ripley’s script wanders off-key. Schoolyard bullying never goes much further than taking someone’s music away, which keeps the stakes disappointingly low. To paraphrase Dustin’s Master Carvelle, the film has no passion – or, rather, it doesn’t inspire us to experience that passion too.
Garrett Wareing sounds brilliant and does a believable job of the underdog outsider. Hoffman comfortably carries all the paternal conflict you’d expect from a troubled mentor, but with no one stepping outside of their stereotypical roles, Girard’s attractive direction fails to generate the drama or heart off-stage so regularly demanded by Hoffman’s perfectionist. Compared to 2012’s A Late Quartet, this feels flat. “40 voices in a circle, passing from one group to the next,” intones Dustin, mid-rehearsal. “There it is! North to south! East to west! It’s a cross! It’s a crucifix!” It’s certainly something.