Gaspard Ulliel takes a tasty bite out of French history as the title peasant in "Jacquou le Croquant." Handsomely mounted, old-fashioned mini-epic about the pesky gap between the obscenely rich and dirt-poor in Gaul, circa 1815, is Hollywood-slick in execution but pleasingly Dickensian in its themes.

Gaspard Ulliel — recently at large as the fledgling Hannibal Lecter — takes a tasty bite out of French history as the title peasant in “Jacquou le Croquant.” Handsomely mounted, old-fashioned mini-epic about the pesky gap between the obscenely rich and dirt-poor in Gaul, circa 1815, is Hollywood-slick in execution but pleasingly Dickensian in its themes. Feisty family fare, which clocked up a bonny 1 million admissions on release late January, boasts fighting, romance, suspense, revenge and redemption to spare in the tale of a self-possessed orphan who leads a creative revolt against the local nobility.

A major improvement on helmer Laurent Boutonnat’s epic flop “Giorgino” (1994), the nicely cast “Jacquou” is already sold for many territories. Based on an 1899 novel that ran as a popular tube series in the ’60s, it reps the kind of quality TV fare that, while hardly original, doesn’t leave viewers feeling as though they wasted 2½ hours of their lives.

Pic is narrated by a kindly old physician (played by Tcheky Karyo). When the father (Albert Dupontel) of cute urchin Jacquou (Leo Legrand) is railroaded and murdered thanks to the evil Count of Nansac (Jocelyn Quivrin, satisfyingly villainous), the valiant lad’s mom (Marie-Josee Croze), before dying a cinematic death, makes him swear to avenge his father.

There are no breaks for the orphaned son of a politically tainted peasant. But Jacquou fends for himself, eating stolen candles to snuff his hunger. Meanwhile, he and fellow peasant Lina (Clemence Gautier) have eyes for each other. Another fetching woman-to-be, Galiote (Iulia Lumanare), the count’s younger daughter, meets Jacquou when he rescues her from a hungry batch of rampaging hogs.

Starving and half-frozen, young Jacquou is taken in by independent-minded clergyman Father Bonal (Olivier Gourmet, looking exactly like Bert Lahr’s cowardly lion) and grows, under his tutelage, into a fine young man (Ulliel). He and the equally grown Lina (Judith Davis) are now a united couple.

But gorgeous Galiote (Bojana Panic), who’s grown into an accomplished horsewoman with a rebellious streak a kilometer wide, remains smitten with Jacquou. Unfortunately, Jacquou is going to lead an ingenious uprising against her dad, who had him beaten and then tossed into a well in a burlap sack a good century before Houdini perfected that sort of escape. The nobility has no idea what it’s in for.

Painterly widescreen lensing wins the day. Shot in the burnished fields and rustic outcroppings of France and Romania, with a preference for classy amber and ochre tones, many scenes look like vintage etchings or oil paintings. Shamelessly sentimental adventure is a lot of fun and certainly can’t be accused of leaving any loose ends.

Jacquou le Croquant

France-Germany

Production

A Pathe Distribution release of a Pathe Renn Prods. presentation of a Pathe Renn Prods., Heathcliff, TF1 Films Prod., SPI (France)/CP Medien (Germany) production, with participation of Canal Plus. (International sales: Pathe Distribution, Paris.) Produced by Romain Le Grand. Co-executive producers, Dominique Boutonnat, Laurent Boutonnat. Directed by Laurent Boutonnat. Screenplay, Franck Moisnard, Boutonnat, based on the novel by Eugene Le Roy.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Olivier Cocaul; editor, Stan Collet; music, Laurent Boutonnat; production designer, Christian Marti; costume designer, Jean-Daniel Vuillermoz; sound (Dolby), Jean Goudier, Francois-Joseph Hors, Eric Rophe; associate producers, Horst Benzine, Rauf Harriman, Jean-Claude Fleury; assistant director, Denis Imbert; casting, Francoise Menidrey. Reviewed at Gamont Opera Francais, Paris, Jan. 12, 2007. Running time: 149 MIN.

With

Gaspard Ulliel, Leo Legrand, Marie-Josee Croze, Albert Dupontel, Tcheky Karyo, Olivier Gourmet, Jocelyn Quivrin, Malik Zidi, Gerald Thomassin, Judith Davis, Bojana Panic, Dora Doll, Jerome Kircher, Clemence Gautier, Iulia Lumanare.
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