Directors’ Showcase / UK premiere

Once

  • John Carney /
  • Ireland /
  • 2006 /
  • 88 mins

Glen Hansard, Marketa Irglova, Hugh Walsh, Gerry Hendrick, Alastair Foley, Geoff Minogue, Bill Hodnett, Danuse Ktrestova, Darren Healy, Mal Whyte / Fiction / English

The low-budget Irish charmer that stole away the Audience Award at Sundance 2007.

Writer/director John Carney’s Once is a wonderful rebuttal to those who bemoan the demise of the musical. This genuine audience charmer finds the genre in fine fettle on the wintry streets of Dublin, where a talented local busker meets a young woman from the Czech Republic, and the two begin to fall for one another.

Shooting his unnamed couple (played by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova) against lively Dublin backdrops with handheld immediacy, Carney introduces the musical numbers with subtle invention. The back seat of a noisy Dublin double-decker bus is the occasion for Hansard to sing of his broken heart from a past relationship on his battered old guitar. A music shop where Marketa is allowed after-hours access to a piano provides an opportunity for a haunting, seemingly improvised, delicately harmonised duet.

This DV-shot musical inevitably owes something to Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark – and to Ireland’s tradition of sung balladry, which we see performed at a party the couple attend. But the film’s greatest debt is to the breezy, romantic energy of the MGM musicals. Mickey Rooney’s rallying cry of “Let’s do the show right here!” meets the DIY aesthetic of punk rock (not for nothing does Hansard’s character have a Ramones poster in his bedroom), in a film of boundless enthusiasm and beguiling directness. Watch out, for instance, for the wondrous set-piece where Irglova’s character purchases some batteries for her CD player from the local shop, then walks back home, breaking out into a sweetly-sad love song, which Carney films in a virtuoso long take. The documentary-style visuals are deceptive: like the charity shop chic that Irglova’s character exudes, this film’s rough-hewn charm is artfully assembled.

Written by Hansard (a star in Ireland thanks to his celebrated band The Frames), the songs are mainly pared-down acoustic numbers, sung with feeling by the two leads. And thankfully, Hansard’s former bandmate Carney knows that often the best way to film musical performances is the simplest. In the later scenes when Hansard, Irglova and their band record tracks for a demo tape, Carney’s intimate, watchful style gives you that rare sense of eavesdropping on a jamming session where everything just clicks.

This is a film of freewheeling spontaneity that boasts note-perfect performances, tremendous generosity of spirit and the bracing comic irreverence you only seem to find in Dublin. The mix is irresistibly entertaining; Once will leave you wanting more.
Ed Lawrenson

2007 Archive

Image from Once

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