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Precious Mariah shines

PRECIOUS (drama. Starring Gabourey Sidibe, Mo'Nique, Paula Patton, Mariah Carey, Lenny Kravitz. Directed by Lee Daniels. cert 15A)

The full and somewhat clunky title of this movie is Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire, but as was the case with Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan we'll stick with the pre-colon title for the duration, not least because the very mention of Sacha Baron Cohen's inspired comic creation is the last thing likely to bring a smile to your face for a while.

Even before the movie proper begins and we're taken to the streets of Harlem in 1987, a quote informing us that "Everything is a gift of the universe" appears on screen and even if you didn't have the slightest advance inkling of what's about to unfold, you should guess that you're being primed for a slew of suffering and misery, given that 'it's all God's will'-style provisos don't generally tend to appear ahead of tales of fabulously wealthy and beautiful people living lives of rich fulfilment. And that certainly proves to be the case here.

When we first meet Claireece 'Precious' Jones (Gabourney Sibide) she's an obese, barely literate 16-year-old with a shockingly low level of self-confidence. Her situation is hardly helped by the fact that she's pregnant with a second child by her father, her first baby having been born with Down's Syndrome, and is living in poverty with her monstrous mother Mary (Mo'Nique).

It's hardly surprising that Precious is withdrawn and capable of sudden bursts of temper, given that she's been subjected to constant belitting and serious emotional, as well as physical, violence by Mary, who never misses an opportunity to demean her daughter or drum into her that she'll never amount to anything at all.

Expelled from school but not before a couple of teachers have spotted certain potential in her, Precious is encouraged to attend an alternative education programme where an inspirational, almost saintly tutor, Ms Rain (Paula Patton), gradually draws her out of her shell.

It's around this point that you think the movie is about to veer into the inspirational, the kind of Oscar-bait territory guaranteed to draw tears on Oprah (indeed, Winfrey is one of the executive producers) but it's to the credit of the script and director Lee Daniels that the audience isn't allowed an easy escape.

Newcomer Gabourney Sidibe is remarkable in the title role, making those moments, when things seem to be going relatively well for her character, shine in contrast to the hardships, while Mo'Nique (a comedian by trade) has created one of the most horrifying screen characters of recent years. Credit where it's due, too, to Mariah Carey, looking unusually dowdy as a welfare officer but contributing significantly to an important scene.

The director obviously knows that heaping misery upon misery will leave an audience battered before the halfway mark, so he cleverly intercuts harsh reality with short passages where Precious dreams of glamour and success but such moments offer only a brief respite from a film which is pretty hard going, despite its undoubted quality and the excellence of the central performances. HHHHI