Starring Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová
Written and directed by John Carney
Every so often, a little film comes out of left field, and blows this viewer to pieces. "Once" was one of those such films 8 years ago. It's a modest, tiny story, about a guitar-playing Dublin busker in his early thirties (listed only in the credits as "Guy", played by Glen Hansard, of rock & roll band The Frames, and not an actor, although he had appeared in Alan Parker's 1991 soul music comedy "The Commitments") striking up a friendship with an immigrant Czech flower-seller (credits: "Girl" played by first-timer Markéta Irglová) who admires his songs and harbours her own modest ambitions in that area - she's a piano player, but can't afford to buy an upright over in Ireland. He plays popular songs by day, and his own compositions by night. No one seems to listen to him much, except the passing heroin addict (in a hysterical early scene) and "Girl", who is seemingly transfixed. The songs are raw and emotional, several delivered in crescendos to shoutiness which really shouldn't work, but which somehow do. One lunchtime the pair visit a musical instrument store of which "Guy" is friendly with the proprietor. They seemingly improvise a version of one of his songs which he teaches her, the insanely beautiful and gentle "Falling Slowly" - track which incidentally would go on to win numerous awards including the Academy Award for Best Original Song in 2008.
The plot, what there is of it, could be written on the back of a postage stamp (that is, if postage stamps these days weren't all self-adhesive, and probably can't be written on, but I digress). "Guy" and "Girl" meet in the street around Dublin a few times. His day job is working in a vacuum cleaner repair shop with his elderly Father, to which she promptly brings her busted Hoover. We find out that he is coming off the back of a long-term relationship, and that his ex has left him and moved to London. He toys with the idea of making the move himself. His clearly deep affection for "Girl" is borne as much from rebound as it is from respect for her talent; he makes an inappropriate and badly-timed advance, which offends her. They patch things up soon enough, but he is shocked to discover that she is married, and has a child living with her in Dublin, although her estranged husband is still living back in the Czech Republic; apparently things weren't easy, but she is still committed to the marriage. She's also alarmingly blunt with him, possibly not quite aware of the social niceties as a result of the linguistic difference. Although she says to "Guy" at one point, in Czech, "Miluju tebe", which I understand means "I love you" or something along those lines. But it seems it's not to be between them. There's much to be said for simply being friends.. They embark on a partnership of musical collaboration, platonic friendship, and unrequited love but produce musical nectar along the way. Enlisting the help of three other local musicians - Gerard Hendrick, Alastair Foley and Hugh Walsh (as Timmy the drummer - the cast letting their love of "South Park" be known there, through one of the only characters actually to be given a name) - they miraculously secure a bank loan, and hire a recording studio in beautiful surroundings South of Dublin on the East Coast, where they lay down enough tracks to create a demo CD. Enough for "Guy" to take to London with him to try to make it big.
The film drips with naturalism, and is so much stronger for it. The camerawork, much of it hand-held, is realistic - call it "documentary style" or what you will, it adds to the feeling that we're genuinely peeking in on the lives of these people. There's a fantastic moment during the first recording session, when the studio engineer cues the band up, starts recording and leans back in his chair, bored, reading a magazine. As the song progresses and builds, we see him gradually start to perk up, and actually listen to the song. He's clearly impressed, and in the space of three and a half minutes he has gone from treating this group of musicians with disdain, a bunch of talentless dreamers wasting their time and money, to musicians he regards with respect, capable of creating great tunes. As the song concludes, he simply remarks "That was nice", but with visible appreciation, it's a lovely moment. "Guy" and band react with touching humility, as if surprised that anyone outside their ranks could appreciate their music. There are some wonderful, tender moments as "Guy" coaxes "Girl" into playing some of her own songs; she breaks down one night in a darkened side-studio, and opens up to him.
Director John Carney gave us the Keira Knightley / James Corden / Mark Ruffalo musical flick "Begin Again" earlier this year, which I have not yet seen but by all accounts is slightly cuter and less effective than "Once". Still, it's nice to see his obvious talent being recognised. What's heartening about this film is that the mood is so realistic and the characters are so credible. From "Guy's" pain at his breakup and furtive longing to "Girl's" ambition and thwarted affection, these are real people it seems, on a genuine emotional arc. The ending is bittersweet. One wants the couple to get together, but we're also reminded that real-life isn't always that simple. Some have asked why it is so titled. But "Once" is beautifully ambiguous. It could refer to the one time you meet a person who's perfect for you, the one time things click into place with your ambitions and your achievements. I was never really a great fan of Musicals. Save for "Singin' in the Rain" and the "Blues Brothers", and unless "Amadeus" counts, I don't really have much time for a film's characters randomly breaking into song and dance; they just don't work for me, although I accept they have their place. "Once" isn't a Musical in the traditional sense of the word, rather, it's a film about people who play and sing songs. So many of the songs here are truly fantastic; from the Oscar-winning "Falling Slowly" to the amazing "When Your Mind's Made Up" by way of the beautiful "If You Want Me", sung by "Girl" on a walk back to her flat from the convenience store where she has had to buy batteries for her Discman, so she could listen to "Guy's" music and lay her words down on top (it's a brilliant handheld shot-in-motion). This isn't even my kind of music - there's no four-to-the-floor beat, or synths! But the songs are utterly wonderful, and many of them are performed in full by the artists concerned. One honestly feels like you're watching real musicians - and you are.
The movie has recently been turned into a West End / Broadway stage production, which I haven't seen and can't yet quite figure out how would work. But the film, to say this upfront, is so sweet and touching, it really hits me in the heart; dare I say it, it's a masterpiece. I've read that it spent longer in the US box office top 30 than "Spiderman 3" and "Shrek the Third" (and it certainly cost a hell of a lot less then those to produce). No less than Steven Spielberg allegedly said of it "a little movie called "Once" gave me enough strength to last the rest of the year". High praise indeed. Hansard and Irglová dated for a few years, and performed on stage after the film, opened for Bob Dylan on a tour, and the chemistry together is certainly palpable. They're incredibly watchable. Apparently shot in just 17 days, it's affectingly ultra-realistic. And it's packed with human charm. For sure, it's bittersweet at the end. We want these two to get together, but we understand why they can't. Life's not always like that. "Once" is a wonderful, low-key, charmer of a film, and whether you like the songs or not, it's got so much humanity, humour and heart that it's well worth the 100 minutes of your time it would take to check it out.