2007, R, 85 min. Directed by John Carney. Starring Glen Hansard, Markéta Irglová, Bill Hodnett, Danuse Ktrestova.
REVIEWED By Toddy Burton, Fri., June 1, 2007
This delicate Irish import is the insightful and endearing reimagining of a familiar genre: the musical. Unlike traditional musicals that center around their big performance numbers, Once is a movie about real people who just happen to start singing now and then. But just like any good musical, it’s all about the songs. Written by the film’s stars, Hansard (frontman of the successful Irish rock band the Frames) and the Czech musician Irglová, the music weaves in and out of the film with dreamlike precision. Recipient of the World Cinema Audience Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, the movie manages to be simultaneously magical and real. Writer/director (and former professional musician) Carney presents a story that is deceptively simple. Wandering around the streets of Dublin with a well-worn guitar (the actor’s own), Hansard plays an unnamed busker, or street musician. After performing his mournfully beautiful songs, he heads home to work at his father’s vacuum-cleaner-repair shop. Then he meets Irglová, a Czech immigrant living with her mother and young daughter. Only 17 when the film was shot, Irglová is both wise and childish at the same time. The two strangers develop a chemistry that, along with the songs they sing, carries the film. Ultimately, Irglová helps Hansard move his act off the streets and into a recording studio. The dialogue is honest and awkward (the actors were encouraged to improvise their lines), and the music feels as surprisingly realistic as the conversations. Bittersweet and endearing in a way that somehow manages not to be cheesy, the songs make you feel lonely and in love at the same time. And the film isn’t too different. With a delicate mastery, Carney successfully creates a story that is both substantial and slight, while Hansard and Irglová are enchanting to watch. Shot on digital video, the movie has a homemade documentary quality and frequently feels like a bunch of friends got together and decided to make a movie. Which is pretty much the case. Only the friends are really talented, and the movie is really good. Narrative contrivances do pop up, but they’re not too bothersome. Carney and his cast bring a freshness to moments that in clumsier or lazier hands would doubtless come across as artificial. And though the film is unique, it relies on trusted storytelling techniques to convey its subtle fairy-tale-like journey. Ultimately, Once transcends even its own ambitions, becoming a complex meditation on relationships, Irish culture, and music.