It reminds that the formula for a great film is rather elementary: a simple story presented by talented people. Big budgets be damned! Shot for something in the range of $150,000, Once was originally intended as a vehicle for Cillian Murphy and would've starred him as a street musician, or "busker." Instead, it took some real-life musicians and gave them the chance to act--and Once ended up one of this year's greater movie stories.
The film centers on Guy, played fearlessly by Glen Hansard (he co-starred in The Commitments 16 years ago, his sole other feature credit). He works during the day in his father's vacuum-repair shop and does the street-musician thing at night. The film starts hilariously, with a junkie stealing his guitar case full of change, leading to a chase that culminates with a priceless punch line. It's obvious within minutes that Once is going to be a special movie.
As Guy delivers a heart-wrenching performance of a tune called "Say It to Me Now," he is watched by a natural beauty known in the film only as Girl. (Yes, the character names in this film are quite general, just like The Nanny Diaries, reviewed this week.) Girl is played by Markéta Irglová, one of Hansard's real-life musical partners, in one of the year's greater feature debuts. Before long, the two are in a music shop collaborating on a track called "Falling Slowly," a song that damn well better earn an Academy Award nomination. (Actually, the song was featured on an album Hansard and Irglová previously recorded, so maybe it doesn't qualify.) Words cannot express how powerful the performance of this song is. It has the capability of moving you to tears, at least if you are a sensitive bastard such as myself.
The excellent music makes the movie good. What propels it to very-good status is the chemistry between Hansard and Irglová, and the genuine warmth of their forbidden love story. Girl is married with a child, and Guy falls in love with her. Cosmically, it feels as if the two should be together, but situations are conspiring to prevent that. The actors make this story--filmed primitively with handheld video cameras--involving and compelling. It is the most moving love story I've seen this year.
What makes the love story so moving is its lack of conventionality. The way the characters behave is believable and real. They're not afraid to be awkward. In fact, at times, the film is quite awkward, and this left me uncomfortable watching the characters struggle with their feelings. Writer/director John Carney manages to make the film feel so real, it's almost as if you are watching a documentary.
The soundtrack is a real stunner. Hansard's vocal delivery ranges from soft and wounded to fiery and forceful. He is a marvel to watch, and the songwriting is absolutely first-rate. Irglová, with her soft tones and excellent piano playing, is the perfect counterpart to his ferocity. The music takes on yet another dynamic when Guy and Girl enter a studio with a band (including members of Hansard's actual band, The Frames) to record.
One of the film's high points would be a stunning number when Girl goes to the convenience store to buy some batteries for her portable CD player. Guy has given her a musical track to supply lyrics for, and she is intent on doing that--so much so that she puts on her headphones and sings along to his track as she walks home. "If You Want Me" is a great musical moment, and a romantic one, because the words Girl has come up with for the track are beautiful. Irglová makes this sequence most memorable, with a voice that's astounding in its simplicity and honesty.
In the end, the film is, in part, about Guy's healing and moving on. When we first see him, he is wounded, having recently lost a love (Ex-Girlfriend, played by Marcella Plunkett, seen in an especially heartbreaking video flashback while Guy performs "Lies"). The end of the film is genius. It's unexpected and touching, like the movie that preceded it.
There's a moment when Girl says something in Czech, but it is not translated for the audience. Look up the meaning of what she says, and it makes the movie even more heartbreaking.
I saw Once first a couple of months ago, and I liked it. With repeated viewings, I've grown to love it. It really is a movie miracle of sorts, and it deserves to be viewed by anybody who craves a good love story and fantastic music. As its limited theatrical run spreads to new cities, I think moviegoers are going to be swept away by one of the summer's greatest surprises. Once has charms and powers that too few films possess.