Like the best works of art, John Carney’s Once is both melancholy and beautiful, a fragile poem that seems almost too delicate for the big screen. So modest it doesn’t even bother to name its characters, the movie nevertheless imparts a near-miraculous wealth of information in the position of a camera and the dressing of a set. Once is a rarity: a musical more concerned with music than costumes and a love story more interested in love than sex. At a time when most musicals rely primarily on bombast and big names, this tiny gem is an object lesson in how to do things right.

Unfolding on the newly-prosperous streets of Dublin, the movie follows the fortunes of two people for whom prosperity is only a dream. The male lead is a thirtysomething busker known only as Guy (Glen Hansard, the front man for the Irish folk band The Frames), who sings his songs on the nighttime streets for whoever happens by. “Why don’t you sing in the daytime?” wonders Girl (Markéta Irglová), an immigrant Czech maid who sells roses on the same sidewalk to help support her mother and young daughter. “During the day, people want to hear songs they know. They won’t listen to this stuff,” he replies. The stuff in question is both sad and angry, a yelp of pain left by the unfaithful girlfriend who ran off to London and whom we see only in flashback.

Copy picture

His new friend has her own worries, including an estranged husband back home too conflicted (we guess) to follow her and his child, and a relinquished career as a concert pianist. At lunchtimes, an indulgent music-store owner allows her to play his pianos, and when she takes Guy with her they discover a powerful musical bond. This early scene, where the couple composes a song together, is filmed with the utmost simplicity in long, patient takes using a handheld camera that moves in tandem with the song’s shifting rhythms. Yet so powerful is the accompanying emotional punch it catches you completely off guard; Dreamgirls only wishes it could have accomplished so much with so little.

Scored to songs written by the duo (who have an album together in real life), Once unfolds its frail narrative with the gentle confidence of a Dostoevsky novel. Songs are written, a studio is found and a demo tape is made; but instead of being simply the backdrop to a love affair, the film’s music, at once ethereal and shattering, is also its point. Each protagonist is a catalyst for the other, and though you may think you’re watching a heart-on-its-sleeve romance, the truth is quite different and, like life, infinitely more complex. Watch the film and you will expect one outcome; listen to it and you’ll hear quite another.

An unexpected hit at Sundance this year (where it won the Audience Award for best drama), Once works by balancing the feathery charm of its bittersweet story with the scruffy realism of its aesthetics. The songs - haunting melodies of agony tinged with a tentative hopefulness - pair perfectly with the film’s cobblestone streets and dank apartments. Blasting the emotions the couple is too repressed to convey any other way, the music allows the actors to develop a natural affinity for their characters (aside from Hansard’s small role in The Commitments, neither has acted before). Irglová - just 17 at the time of filming and with limited English - found her role especially challenging, though her performance blends seamlessly into the film’s overall insistence on the charm of imperfection.

A chick flick that’s seducing as many men as women, Once is the definition of the little movie that could. Irresistible in its unique - and, some would say, uniquely Irish - blend of pragmatism and magic, the film is a working-class ode to the sustaining grace of artistic expression. Prepare to be beguiled.

Reviewed on: 15 Jul 2007
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Once packshot
Guy meets Girl and makes beautiful - and Oscar-winning - music with her.
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Read more Once reviews:

Amber Wilkinson ***1/2
Chris **

Director: John Carney

Writer: John Carney, with music by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová

Starring: Glen Hansard, Markéta Irglová, Hugh Walsh, Gerry Hendrick, Alastair Foley, Geoff Minogue, Bill Hodnett, Danuse Ktrestova

Year: 2006

Runtime: 88 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: Ireland


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