Glen Hansard as Guy
Markéta Irglová as Girl
Alaistair Foley as Bassist Dude
Geoff Minogue as Manage
Directed by John Carney
(Note: Parts of this review were taken from a write-up done at the Sundance Film Festival
Beautiful and perfect in its simplicity, "Once" is a lovely low-budget musical fairy tale featuring rock solid chemistry between two of this year's finest screen discoveries.
A bitter street musician and vacuum cleaner repairman (Glenn Hansard) and an odd Czech immigrant (Markéta Irglová) meet on the streets of Dublin where they begin an odd friendship, leading to a musical collaboration and hopes for more.
It's hard to know what to expect from "Once" as it opens with Glen Hansard, the red-headed frontman of the Irish rock band The Frames, standing in front of a shop, singing and strumming away on a battered acoustic guitar. Next thing you know, a drunk comes up and after dancing a bit, grabs his guitar case full of money, leading to a chase through the streets of Dublin. That's probably about as much action as you're going to get from John Carney's brilliant musical romance, which begins in earnest when a young nameless immigrant woman starts asking this street musician a bunch of questions. In short order, she's convinced him to look at her "hoover"—his real job is working at his father's vacuum cleaner shop—and this fortuitous encounter leads to a quick friendship. Since this unnamed girl also plays piano and sings, they soon realize that they really can make beautiful music together, and not just in the metaphorical sense. He's still very damaged and bitter about how his last relationship ended, and is newly wounded when she rebuffs his advances because she's married with a daughter, her estranged husband being back in the Czech Republic.
It's hard to find fault with a movie that's so down-to-earth and real, never going the "Hollywood route" at times when it would be so easy to do. It's obviously the kind of movie that could only have been made by someone who knows something about making music and has experienced heartbreak first-hand. The characters, their emotions and their story are so vivid, grabbing you from the first time the two meet, and keeping you rapt at their every word. Carney found the perfect subjects for this story in Hansard, a former bandmate who appeared as part of "The Commitments", and Markéta Irglová, who collaborated musically with Hansard on an album called "The Swell Season", which presumably helped build the chemistry that's so key to making the relationship between these characters work. The fact that neither of them is a trained actor makes their characters seem very natural and real, Glen as a jaded and bitter musician and Markéta as his quirky and precocious friend, the perfect couple despite their age difference. There are so many scenes between them that will make you smile and laugh, and it's hard not to think of movies like "Before Sunset," as you watch them walk through the streets of Dublin, the precocious Markéta dragging a vacuum cleaner behind her.
There's a lot of talking, but the movie's more driven by the memorable songs written by the duo, so anyone not convinced by their connection in the first few minutes after their meeting will be sold once they sit at a piano in a music shop and sing a gorgeous (and frankly quite perfect) song called "Falling Slowly." The way this initially awkward relationship evolves from there is intriguing, as they work on songs together, going into the studio over a single weekend to try to put together some songs with a back-up band they also found on the streets. As someone who has spent many hours in a recording studio, I can certainly vouch for the accuracy of these scenes, and Carney is able to capture the studio experience better than any other movie in recent memory.
Using mostly handheld digital cameras, "Once" never pretends to be more than it is, a simple story about a fledgling relationship, and even the pacing of Carney's unpretentious film is close to perfection, in that he knows when to have the character speak their mind and when to have them sing it. There's really only one spot where this transition might seem forced, when Markéta walks out of a shop singing along to a song on her Walkman, but it's such a moment full of musical emotion—one of many—that you can quickly forgive the film's venture into the realms of the music video. Audiences used to being spoon-fed the sort of sugary sweet perfect endings Hollywood's so good at might bristle at Carney's vague ending, but it's also so much like real life in that you never know what might happen next, in this case after the uncharacteristically high-tech crane shot that ends the movie.
The Bottom Line:
There's little hope of anyone having a romantic bone in their body if they're not immediately hooked by the quirky relationship between this film's two stars and the moving musical moments between them. Simply one of the most enjoyable and heart-warming films to come out this year, "Once" is the perfect movie to fall in love with, as well as the perfect movie to fall in love to.