DIRECTOR: David Frankel
CAST: James Corden, Alexandra Roach, Julie Walters, Colm Meaney
CLASSIFICATION: 7-9 PG
RUNNING TIME: 102 minutes
RATING: 3 stars (out of 5)
Unless you’re made of stone, there are certain Puccini arias that it’s almost physiologically impossible to hear without getting a little choked up.
In One Chance, that operatic not-so-secret weapon is deployed with expert marksmanship by Frankel, who knows his way around satisfying commercial entertainment, as he showed in The Devil Wears Prada and Marley & Me. The director reels us in emotionally to the true story of UK TV talent show sensation Paul Potts, keeping us in the underdog’s corner through an utterly formulaic but sweet movie that does what a crowd-pleaser is meant to do.
British tenor Potts’s performance of Nessun Dorma on the debut episode of Britain’s Got Talent in 2007 has had a modest 115-million YouTube views. That level of exposure indicates that the film’s core audience will know how the South Wales cellphone salesman with the crooked teeth ultimately fared in the contest and beyond. But Frankel and screenwriter Justin Zachman succeed in shaping engaging material out of a story with a preordained outcome.
Zachman’s script for One Chance pushes all the obvious buttons and trowels on the quaintness, and yet it has enough genuine heart to keep you rooting for the protagonist. It taps the vein of UK films like The Full Monty and Billy Elliot, in which characters battered by adversity and diminished self-esteem soar above the reality of their blue-collar environments, in this case a small industrial town in Wales.
Much of the film’s charm comes from the thoroughly winning performance of Corden as Potts. The actor has been best known for the UK sitcom Gavin & Stacey, and for his stage work in London and New York in The History Boys and One Man, Two Guvnors, the latter earning him a Tony Award. This performance will help kick his career up another notch.
Bullied since childhood for his chubbiness and his love of singing, Paul presents his life as an “endless drama full of music and violence and romance and comedy”, drawing a comparison with opera, his greatest passion. His internet chat-room sweetheart, Julie-Ann (Roach), gives him the pluck to go to an opera school in Venice. But his nerve fails him in a master class with his idol Pavarotti, whose crushing assessment extinguishes Paul’s light for a time.
It provides a picture-postcardy centrepiece, with splendid views of the Grand Canal and Piazza San Marco courtesy of Frankel’s regular cinematographer Florian Ballhaus. But the Italian interlude strikes some minor false notes, and the film works best on home ground.
Paul’s depression causes problems with Julie-Ann, chiefly because script conventions dictate that there needs to be some conflict in the path of their marriage. The pattern is right out of the biopic playbook. Each step forward is followed by a fresh misfortune that sidelines Paul’s singing ambitions. But his biggest obstacle is lack of confidence.
Frankel wisely doesn’t linger over the Britain’s Got Talent experience, which is recapped using clips of the actual judging panel led by Simon Cowell, also a producer here. By focusing instead on the bumpy road that brought the terrified Paul to the television spotlight, the film gets us invested in his triumph.
While a few details of Potts’s background have been tweaked, his family life before marriage reveals unwavering support from his chirpy mother (Walters), and grumbling discouragement from his steelworker dad (Meaney). Both actors are amusing, despite a lot of familiar shtick, and in terms of providing comedy and context, the roles are well drawn, as is that of Paul’s co-worker at the phone store, played with endearing oddness by a livewire Mackenzie Crook.
But the relationship that’s key to the film’s success is between Paul and Julie-Ann, who is given emotional candour by Roach (The Iron Lady). It’s a captivating performance, full of gentle humour, but also a grounded, sensible quality that makes her a perfect anchor for Paul.
Along with the usual random selection of contemporary songs (Taylor Swift?), One Chance is full of gorgeous opera excerpts, including Potts’s vocals, lip-synched by Corden. – Hollywood Reporter