When two soul mates meet at the wrong time of their lives, will love find a way as the song says or will circumstances conspire to keep them apart? This is the question examined by Once, the unconventional musical love story from Ireland that won the audience award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
Glen Hansard of the alternative Irish pop band The Frames plays an Irishman who works in his father’s vacuum cleaner repair shop and performs with his battered guitar on the streets of Dublin. During the day he plays popular songs because that’s what people want to hear and they earn him the most money, but at night when no one is around he feels free to pour his heart into his own compositions whether anyone listens or not. This isn’t a man who dreams of fame and riches, but one who simply needs to express himself and can’t imagine doing it in any other way than through music.
His nighttime songs are what get the attention of Markéta Irglová, a lovely young immigrant from the Czech Republic who sells flowers on the street and works as a housekeeper. She’s fascinated to know where his songs come from and she’s delighted to find out he fixes vacuum cleaners because she happens to have one in need of repair. He initially shows no interest in this strange girl and seems irritated by her constant questions, but he agrees to fix her vacuum cleaner anyway.
The next day she takes him to a music store. She’s a classically trained pianist but can’t afford her own instrument so the store proprietor allows her to play one of the display models. She plays Mendelssohn and Hansard is amazed at the beauty of her performance. From the expression on his face, you can tell he finally sees something in this girl he hadn’t noticed at first. She convinces him to play one of his own songs on guitar while she accompanies him on piano. She quickly picks up on his music though she’s never seen it before and they harmonize naturally and easily. It’s clear they have some kind of deeper, unspoken connection; two people eager to find a way to make music any way they can and who do so together beautifully.
In a typical romantic drama, the two would quickly fall in love, there would be some big plot complication keeping them apart, but the obstacles would be overcome before the end of the movie. Once is a story that never seems to go in the directions you expect, however. It turns out Hansard is still nursing old wounds from the bad breakup of a previous long term relationship and Irglová has a baby daughter and her own personal issues. A romance between the two is not a foregone conclusion.
As I said at the start, Once is a musical in that much of the emotion is expressed through the beautiful songs that Hansard and Irglová wrote especially for the movie, but the songs are all delivered in the context of performance. This isn’t a big splashy musical with people walking down the street suddenly breaking into song just because they’re in love and their surrey has fringe on top. The songs are simple and direct and emotional. The look of the film is restrained with unobtrusive, hand-held documentary style camera work that fits the subject and the urban Dublin locales. In real life, Hansard and Irglová are musicians rather than professional actors, but they bring a geniuneness and a lack of pretention to their roles. Hansard has a likeable, scruffy charm and Irglová has a natural beauty and a playful sweetness.
In short, just about everything works. The story flirts with cliché at times, but mostly manages to avoid the obvious in surprising and sometimes amusing ways. An interview with a bank loan officer for example could’ve been torn from a thousand movies but this one doesn’t quite turn out like you’d expect. There is one scene near the end with a cynical recording engineer that follows a familiar pattern, but by this time the film has won you over and the familiarity is harmless. Once is the kind of film that either makes you glad you are in love or wish that you were. In a summer with an excess of action but a dearth of originality, Once restores your faith in the power of a simple film to move you through the expression of basic human emotions.
Once: Ireland 2007. Written and Directed by John Carney. Starring Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová. 1 hour 26 minutes. MPAA rating: R for language. 4 stars (out of 5).