'Amélie' is undeniably romantic and filled with pockets of unexpected magic
The fear going into Craig Lucas's musical adaptation of Jean-Pierre Jeunet's now-iconic 2001 film is that the whimsicality of the original might calcify into an unbearable, teeth-rotting level of tweeness. On the whole, this is, remarkably, not the case with Michael Fentiman's production, which premiered in 2019 at the Watermill before transferring to The Other Palace and now the Criterion.
As a young girl, Amélie Poulain is misdiagnosed with a heart defect and is sequestered away from other children. After her mother passes away and her father recedes into grief, she takes to Paris, where she waitresses in a cafe full of quirky characters who make up a kind of Francophone Lonely Hearts Club. She is devoted to helping others, but unwilling to allow herself to find happiness. It's not the most inherently dramatic of plots, and Lucas's lovingly rendered adaptation runs at a hefty 2 hours and 30 minutes.
Fentiman's production is fleet-footed, but the narrative in the second half boils down to a series of plans laid out and then executed by Amélie, and it all begins to feel ploddingly sequential. Daniel Messé's music is, initially at least, an irresistible smorgasbord of cellos, violins, flutes, and the inevitable accordion (though it is smartly underused) which are all performed by the actor-musicians, who swoop and weave across the stage with impressive dexterity. Once again, though, the second half is where the music sags, becoming swamped in strings, each song blending into the next. The supporting characters too are granted short shrift by Lucas, though Caolan McCarthy stands out with a beautifully droll performance as frustrated writer Hippolito.
It is Madeleine Girling's design which is the star of the show: an exquisite terrarium which contains a menagerie of hidden delights — Amélie's chocolate-box apartment hidden behind a glowing clock-face, a transportive photo booth, rusted green wrought iron Metro signs. The design is where Amélie could have faltered: too stylised and sweet, and it could tip into the excessively quaint. Instead, Girling's design feels like it lays out a precedent for an undeniably romantic but still rustic story, one shot through with more grubbiness than we might expect.
There is a reassuring edge of darkness to the show, compounded by Dik Downey's truly eerie puppets and Audrey Brisson's excellent central performance, which resists dreaminess and instead beds down into a stubborn wiriness. Fentiman excels at sleights of hand and pockets of unexpected magic — a lampshade hoisting Amélie up to her apartment, a surprisingly adept Elton John pastiche (McCarthy again, who excels) — and it seeks out those moments with relish.
At its highs, Amélie is very high indeed. It is a shame that there is a frankly unforgivable level of racial homogeneity in the cast which feels entirely misplaced given that the production leans into the idea of a bustling metropolis, and Lucas has seemingly sidestepped the opportunity to update some of the more questionable aspects of this 20 year old film. A chocolate box that is perhaps more bitter than one might have expected — both to its credit and its failings.
Photo credit: Audrey Brisson in Amélie (Photo by Pamela Raith)
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