#167 Once

(2006, John Carney)

“I play these songs at night or I won’t make any money. People won’t listen.”
“I listen.”

You don’t hear much about Irish cinema. Sure, it’s not drastically different from its close cousin British cinema, but you’d think it wouldn’t be so strongly overshadowed. So, to celebrate St Patrick’s Day, here’s one of the few Irish movies on my list. This is Once, a romantic musical starring a couple of non-acting musicians. Oh dear, this could be bad…

Glen Hansard, vocalist and guitarist for Irish folk band The Frames, plays an unnamed aspiring songwriter, busking on the streets of Dublin while working in a vacuum cleaner repair shop owned by his dad. One day he gets chatting to a local flower seller played by Czech musician Marketa Irglova and they become friends, bonding over music and a shared sadness for their former relationships. During a brief time together, it becomes obvious they have feelings for each other, but will they act on them?

Initially, I was wary of this movie. Written and directed by a musician, with musicians in the lead roles, I got the impression it was going to be a pretentious navel-gazing movie that acted as little more than a promotional vehicle for The Frames’ latest album. The fact it was advertised as a romantic musical got me even more worried. After all, regular readers will know how much I dislike musicals.

But all of this was profoundly wrong. Right from the first scene, where Hansard has his guitar case and money stolen by a drunk guy, Once proved itself to have real charm.

First of all, praise must be given to the two leads. Not trained actors in the slightest, you wouldn’t be able to tell it from watching them here. Both of them play their characters with real warmth and emotion, and their interactions feel entirely natural. You can feel a strong chemistry between the two, and I really connected with them both.

Which is important, because the plot is minimal. This could be seen as a bad thing, but honestly, the point of the movie is the interaction between these two, and everything that happens around them is secondary. There are small story arcs, such as Irglova’s character trying to find her identity living in Ireland and Hansard’s character desperate to move on from his ex-girlfriend and get a record deal to make a living from his songs, and they work well, but they’re woven into the duo’s relationship.

The musical aspect of the movie was another thing I shouldn’t have been worried about. One of the main reasons I dislike musicals is because the songs often tend to interrupt the plot rather than advance it, but this gets around this perfectly by making both characters musicians, so all the songs are being played just as they would be between two similar people in reality. We see the two working on songs together just like two real musicians would, and it still feels completely natural.

Also helps that the songs are pretty good too. Consisting mostly of acoustic guitar led ballads, they’re incredibly intimate and emotional songs that contribute greatly to the atmosphere of the movie. Every time they’re performed, it adds to the emotional connection between the two leads, and really helped me to fall in love with the entire movie.

Once isn’t going to be for everyone though. It’s a low budget, intimate affair, so if you have no interest in simple introspective slice-of-life movies, then the movie’s unlikely to win you over. Also unlikely to win you over if you find Irish folk ballads to be kind of bland, since there’s little variation on the soundtrack, and they appear a lot.

It must be pretty obvious that Once turned out to not only exceed my poor expectations, it shattered them into a million pieces. I loved this movie, and I highly recommend it.

Starring Glen Hansard & Marketa Irglova
Written by John Carney
Produced by Martina Niland
Music by Glen Hansard, Marketa Irglova & Interference
Cinematography by Tim Fleming
Edited by Paul Mullen

Favourite Scene: After Hansard’s character has played his music to his father for the first time, his dad’s reaction is hilarious.
Scene That Bugged Me: There is one instance where Hansard is composing a song while watching old videos of his ex-girlfriend on his laptop, and I just kept thinking “you need to let it go, delete those files”

Watch it if: You like charming movies about folk musicians
Avoid it if: You want some crazy explosive sex scenes


Posted on March 18, 2013, in 2000s, Musical, Romance, United Kingdom and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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