It isn’t often that film critics agree, and even less often that they are moved, given the glut of films watched and the overwhelming dross that makes the large part of their viewing. Every now and then, however, a film wins the hearts of almost everyone – critics included – who sees it, and in 2007 that film is Once.
A busker and part-time vacuum cleaner repairman (Glen Hansard) sings songs of love and loss on the streets of Dublin, seemingly baring his soul each time he picks up his guitar. A Czech immigrant (Markéta Irglová) approaches him, asking about the girl he must have lost, and eventually convincing him to fix her broken Hoover. As they get to know each other in subsequent days, they discover a shared love of music, and that they have a lot more in common than might otherwise be expected.
If the premise sounds simple, this is actually one of the strengths of this great film. Shot with handheld cameras for only $160,000 and using family and friends as extras and their homes as sets, the most striking aspect of the production is that it all feels so real. The characters aren’t played by recognisable actors, although Cillian Murphy was originally slated to star, and the cinematography adds to the illusion that we are voyeurs in the real life of a pair of musicians. Rarely is handheld camerawork a plus in a film (the recent The Bourne Ultimatum is a great example of how not to use it), but here it really adds to the texture of the story.
Carney’s characters are fully fleshed out people with real problems – not the kinds of problems romantic leads in Hollywood productions face, but rather gritty issues like whether they have enough money to eat. His guy and girl must seek multiple income streams, and they never really have the opportunity – until they meet each other – to let themselves dream of more. Hansard and Irglová are absolutely believable, never once misplacing themselves, and the true measure of their success is that it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing these parts.
Where Michael Winterbottom’s 9 Songs attempted to use music as illustration and failed dismally, the songs played by both Hansard and Irglová fit into the narrative seamlessly, truly adding value to the characters and their story. Although their particular brand of folk pop may not appeal to everyone, the emotion in the lyrics and the intensity of delivery should sell even the most hardened.
In using original music to illustrate the growing bond between Guy and Girl, writer/director Carney creates a magical, utterly charming world, where the daily concerns of life disappear for the few minutes the audience has the pleasure to spend with his characters. Once transports the viewer in a way major studio productions almost never do, and will be loved by anyone lucky enough to see it.Rating: