Director: Francesca Joseph. UK. 2002. 108 mins.

Funny, stylish and deeply moving, Tomorrow La Scala! is a little gem of a first feature from award-winning documentary filmmaker Francesca Joseph. Inspired by the director's own experiences and partially improvised over three weeks of workshops, it finds real depth and feeling in the story of a lowly opera company collaborating with the inmates of a maximum security prison. The first film commissioned under a co-production venture between the UK's BBC Films and the Film Council's New Cinema Fund, it is scheduled for UK TV transmission in the autumn but deserves a much better fate. In many respects, it exceeds the achievements of prison-set heartwarmers Greenfingers and Lucky Break , which both received UK theatrical releases in 2001.

Renowned as the talent behind such television documentaries as Four Tarts And A Tenor and Driving School, Joseph brings the same sense of compassion and humanity to her dramatic debut as she charts the arrival of the opera company at Her Majesty's Prison Seaworth. Ambitious director Victoria (Stevenson) is staging a production of Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd and feels she may have come to the right place for a piece that deals with murder, madness and the brutalisation of the human spirit. Life prisoners, many of them convicted of murder, are to perform as part of the chorus for a public performance. "There're pros and cons, " she nervously jokes. " We're the pros. They are the cons".

Initially wary of what they will discover, the opera singers place their faith in personable guard Kevin (Dingwall) who warns against fraternisation or any temptation to befriend the prisoners. But curiosity begins to get the better of them, especially flirty, outgoing Janey (Spiro) who talks to the men, asks them about their crimes and takes quite a shine to them. Reservations and prejudices slowly step aside as the prisoners are exposed as vulnerable, damaged figures and the performers are acknowledged to possess the best of intentions. One of the strengths of the film is the way it refuses to sentimentalise the men or what happens in the prison. Amidst the gradual coming together of the disparate groups, there is still ample evidence of the violence, racism and resentment that defines prison life. A constant threat of danger lurks just below the surface.

Inevitably, interaction has a profound effect on both prisoners and performers. Joseph constantly catches moments that underline just what the loss of liberty means and the way in which a measure of respect and a tongue-twisting Sondheim chorus can restore just a little of a man's lost dignity. When two of the singers rehearse the romantic number Kiss Me, Joseph lets the camera linger on the longing in the eyes and faces of the men locked away from the world. Later, the opera company prepare a special meal for the prisoners and the combination of proper food, sympathetic company and hard-won compassion is more than some of them can bear.

Working with a large ensemble, Joseph allows each of them their moment to shine. Bossy, pretentious and always the professional, Stevenson's Victoria wins the respect of all around her whilst Spiro's golden-hearted hussy is very amusing and real. There are also some finely etched moments from David Oyelowo's plaintive Charlie, Karl Johnson's understanding old-timer Sydney and Mel Raido's sceptical Jordan. Improvised during workshops at Haverigg Prison in Cumbria, northern England, where the film was shot, the dialogue captures all the ragged spontaneity of real life without ever feeling self-indulgent or manufactured. Sharp lensing from Gerry Floyd belies any hint of a modest budget and adds visual allure to an auspicious debut saluting the resilience of the human spirit and the possibility of redemption.

Prod co: Home Movies Ltd
Int'l sales:
Portman Film
Ruth Caleb, Christopher Collins
Exec prods:
David M Thompson, Paul Trijbits
Scr: Joseph
Gerry Floyd
Prod des:
John Stevenson
St John O'Rorke
Dan Jones
Main cast:
Jessica Stevenson, Samantha Spiro, Shaun Dingwall, Kulvinder Ghir, Karl Johnson, Dudley Sutton