One Chance: Toronto Review
James Corden stars as Paul Potts, the breakout operatic tenor sensation from "Britain's Got Talent," in director David Frankel's biopic.
TORONTO – 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 David Frankel, who knows his way around a 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 Brit 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.
Given Potts’ profile at home, the biopic seems a sure bet for popular success in the U.K. when it opens on Oct. 25. The Weinstein Co. will follow on Jan. 10, 2014 in the U.S., where its relatable characters and uplifting story should be assets in the marketplace.
British tenor Potts’ performance of “Nessun dorma” on the debut episode of Britain’s Got Talent in 2007 has since then had a modest 115 million YouTube views. That level of exposure indicates that the film’s core audience will already know how the South Wales cell-phone 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.
This is a surprise given Zachman’s track record with the cheaply manipulative The Bucket List, which he wrote, and The Big Wedding, an embarrassment that he also directed. His 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 Brit 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 James Corden as Potts. The actor has been best known up to now for the U.K. 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. Paul is a man with a pure heart, clinging to a dream that dies and regenerates multiple times, and Corden plays this potentially cloying stuff with the ideal light touch.
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 comparison with opera, his greatest passion. His Internet chat room sweetheart, Julie-Ann (Alexandra 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 centerpiece, 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, much the same way reality shows often do with a hard-luck contestant.
While a few details of Potts’ background have been tweaked, his family life before marriage reveals unwavering support from his chirpy mother (Julie Walters), and grumbling discouragement from his steelworker dad (Colm Meaney). Both actors are amusing despite a lot of familiar shtick, though Meaney’s character might as well wear a sign saying, “Heartwarming Turnaround Ahead.” But 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 complete emotional candor by Roach (The Iron Lady). It’s a captivating performance, full of gentle humor, but also a grounded, sensible quality that makes her a perfect anchor for Paul. Their first face-to-face meeting – she comes by train from Bristol to spend the day with him and is hijacked into a family lunch by his mother – is among the film’s loveliest episodes, impeccably played by both actors.
Along with the usual random selection of contemporary songs (Taylor Swift?), One Chance is full of gorgeous opera excerpts, including Potts’ vocals, lip-synched by Corden. If it’s heavy-handed to have Paul in full pagliaccio drag silence a pub full of rowdy hecklers with some wrenching Toscanini, it’s also irresistible, much like the movie.
Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentation)
Opens: Friday, Jan. 10, 2014 (Weinstein Co.)
Cast: James Corden, Julie Walters, Alexandra Roach, Mackenzie Crook, Colm Meaney, Jemima Rooper, Valeria Bilello, Trystan Gravelle
Production companies: Relevant Entertainment, Weston Pictures
Director: David Frankel
Screenwriter: Justin Zachman
Producers: Mike Menchel, Simon Cowell, Brad Weston, Kris Thykier
Executive producers: Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein, Steve Whitney
Director of photography: Florian Ballhaus
Production designer: Martin Childs
Music: Theodore Shapiro
Costume designer: Colleen Kelsall
Editor: Wendy Green Bricmont
Sales: Weinstein Co.
Rated PG-13, 103 minutes