Mark Reviews Movies

ONCE (2007)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Director: John Carney

Cast: Glen Hansard, Markéta Irglová

MPAA Rating:   (for language)

Running Time: 1:25

Release Date: 5/16/07


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Review by Mark Dujsik

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow said, "Music is the universal language of mankind." Once believes that statement with every fiber of its heart and soul, and its heart and soul are so pure, so good, so decent, so loving, one cannot help but feel the man was right. This is a genuinely lovely film, brimming with tender humanity, a resonant emotional depth, and fantastic music. That it was written and directed by a musician is no surprise. The film is enamored with the processes of creating, performing, and reacting to music, and those moments are presented with sincerity and verve. There's no obvious story, really. There are simply two people without names who discover each other by chance, share a passion, leave too much unsaid, and move on with their lives. What writer/director John Carney has done with this barebones tale of unrequited love that elevates it to an entirely different plane of film musicals is to use the simplicity of plot, character, and style to craft a sort of cinematic poem. It doesn't dramatize or analyze; it exists solely to serve as a reflection of its themes—to feel their effect. Once is joyful filmmaking, the kind we get to experience so rarely that, when we do, we're stunned at how effortless it seems.

A guy (Glen Hansard) is a street musician, playing guitar and singing for money. His guitar is beaten and cracked from wear; this is his life. When his case full of money is stolen, he chases down the thief and lets the kid have the money, pointing out he would have given him it had the young man simply asked. During the day, he plays songs people want to hear, but at night, he performs his original songs, when they're keener to actually listen to them. The camera walks toward him as he sings; we see his passion. A girl (Markéta Irglová) does indeed listen and tosses in a dime. They talk. Why doesn't he work in a store, she asks. He does. He fixes vacuums at his father's (Bill Hodnett) shop. She happens to have a broken vacuum and tells him she'll bring it by the next door. Sure enough, she does. They go out for lunch—she dragging the Hoover along—and she takes him to a music shop. She plays piano, and since she can't afford one, the shop owner lets her play for an hour or two every day. He thinks she plays beautifully, and she suggests they play one of his songs together.

The song is "Falling Slowly," and it becomes their theme, starting and ending their relationship within the film, taking on new meaning by the time all is done and little is said. He fingers a C chord on his six-string and tells her the song is in the key of C. "Yeah, I can see that," she says. It's this knowledge of music and the way these two people live and breathe it in their everyday lives that forms the foundation of their relationship, and when they first play the song, it's as though they've been performing together for years. Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová are musicians, too, and they have made an album together before this film. They are naturals, and their acting in the film has the same ease with which they approach music. The camera stays on a long take of them beginning the song, learning how the piano will fit into the guitar and detecting the harmony of the vocals.  Tim Fleming's digital cinematography heightens the sensation. The shot frames them together, lingers on them, and lets them play. As the arrangement becomes more solidified, each of them finding his and her part in the song, editor Paul Mullen begins to cut between them. It is intimate, like watching a happy secret revealed between two people.

Indeed, it is, as we learn through the sparse dialogue that establishes their respective situations but actually experience in the music that reveals what those situations mean to them. The guy has just gotten out of a relationship. He's hurting, and his music, as it typically does, reflects that. While on the bus, the girl asks about what happened, which he happily responds to with a song where the chorus involves a "broken-hearted, Hoover-fixer sucker guy." Essentially, he's in Dublin, living with his father, going through the motions. He says he's over the girlfriend, but the girl's onto him. He sits alone in his room, singing to a home video of his ex, in a scene full of pain, understanding, and longing for that which has gone. The girl also has some relationship issues. She has a daughter, lives with her mother (Danuse Ktrestova), and is married to a man who's not there. She also wrote a song for her significant other, which, when she tries to play it for the guy, she cannot finish on account of breaking down. The girl and guy are kindred spirits, not only in their devotion to music, but also in their confusion over love.

They become partners. He wants her to write lyrics for a romantic melody he's written. Her CD player's batteries go out, so she goes to the store in her robe and slippers, the camera follows her in a long tracking shot down the streets of Dublin as she tests out the lyrics in an incredibly dreamy sequence. This is dedication. The girl is also his cheerleader. Whenever anyone asks if the guy is good (and even sometimes when they don't ask), she's always ready to quickly say, "He's great." She wants him to record a professional demo to take with him to London whenever he finally decides to get his girlfriend back, and the bank manager (Sean Miller) is more than happy to oblige them with a loan, but not before showing them he plays and sings, too. The engineer at the studio thinks the guy, the girl, and the band off the street (literally, that's where they find them) are jokes, until he hears their first song. It's all about that infectious quality of music; the way it can unite people. It's a simple, naďve idea, but it is so genuinely felt here, it becomes so much more than that.

The music itself is indispensable, as the film depends almost entirely on the power of these songs, which are so elegant and performed with such passion that they make the whole concept work. The final moments of Once are poignant, as two people who are so stuck in what has been lost never find what could have been, and it truly amazing how something so simple can seem so complex. We do not fall in love nearly enough at the movies, but this is one to adore.

Copyright © 2007 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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