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Once (A Movie Review)

Updated: Mar 14

ONCE (2006)

Starring Glen Hansard, Marketa Irglova, Hugh Walsh, Gerry Hendrick, Alistair Foley, Geoff Minogue, Bill Hodnett, Danuse Ktrestova, Darren Healy and Catherine Hansard.

Screenplay by John Carney.

Directed by John Carney.

Distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures. 88 minutes. Rated R.

In a summer full of loud, hyperactive films, it is rather shocking to find a movie as intimate, well-behaved and charming as this. Not only that, but it is also downright subversive to make a film in which all of the characters, major and minor alike, actually seem to be good, honest human beings.

The storyline is simple. A busking musician (Glen Hansard) who plays his battered guitar on the streets of Dublin, becomes friends with a poor Czech émigré (Marketa Irglova) who had been a classical pianist back home. They both have jobs (he works at his father's vacuum repair shop, she sells flowers in the streets and cleans homes), but they connect on an elemental level because of their deep respect for music.

Once is so low-key that the two main characters don't even have names, they are simply listed in the credits as "Guy" and "Girl." Yet, despite the fact that we never learn little niceties like names, we leave the theater feeling that we have deeply connected with them on an intimate level.

Part of this has to do with the wonderfully raw acting on display. Once's stars are musicians, not actors by trade. Hansard, who fronts the Irish rock group The Frames, does have a little cinematic experience – he was one of the members of The Commitments in Alan Parker's hit 90s musical. Marketa Irglova, a singer who has recorded with Hansard, has a sweet, unpretentious acting style that makes her completely irresistible. The audience can always feel exactly what he sees in her -- both as a musician and as a human being.

Yet perhaps it would be too easy to make this a straight love story. Once throws a change-up with this. While there is an undeniable attraction between the two, their relationship is sweet, charming, slightly flirtatious, but mostly chaste through much of the film. They both have complications in their lives. She has a daughter to take care of and an estranged husband back in Czechoslovakia. He has an ex he hasn't totally gotten over. It is through music that guy and girl are really mated.

She is drawn to his songs and her belief in him gives him faith in his own talents. They start working together, merging their talents and discovering each other in ways that are shockingly intimate.

Once is sort of a new version of the traditional musical, the characters regularly break into song and the lyrics reflect and comment on the action. Yet, as musicians, it feels wonderfully organic; not a break in the dramatic action like most musicals, but just an extension of it. In one early scene when she is showing him her skills as a pianist in a local music store. They start to play together and he ad libs the lines, "I don't know you, but I want you all the more for that" -- well, that will melt the hardest heart.

Of course, it helps that – unlike so many movies about singer/songwriters – the music here actually is pretty amazing. Hansard is an electrifying performer, able to coax want, need and beauty from the lyrics. Irglova's voice is also magnificent. A scene where she goes to a convenience store to pick up batteries and we listen as a song births itself in her mind is chilling in its simple wonder.

In the end, the audience is rooting for them to get together, but even they know that romance is simply not the point. Once finds its passion in creation. All other things in life are secondary.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2007 All rights reserved. Posted: August 11, 2007.

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