I’m a bit late to the party when it comes to Once, the Irish musical romantic drama by director John Carney. It’s a small project, shot on a very low budget for a feature film (less than $200,000 apparently) but won wide-spread critical acclaim upon its release and even won an Oscar for Best Song.
The movie is the story of two unnamed characters (referred to in the cast as just “Guy” and “Girl”) played by two non-actors (meant in the sense that acting wasn’t their primary career), Glen Hansard (an Irish singer who used to play in a band with Carney) and Markéta Irglová, a Czech singer-songwriter. They meet when the Girl hears the Guy playing his guitar on the streets late at night. During the day, he plays recognizable covers in order to draw in the donations, but at night he cuts loose with his own stuff. The Girl is moved by one of these songs and starts a conversation, where they discover a deep personal connection: his day job is working with his dad repairing vacuum cleaners, and she has a broken vacuum cleaner.
But they discover something as well, which is their shared love and passion for music. The Girl recognizes there is something special and passionate about what is coming through when the Guys sings his own stuff, and her enthusiasm inspires him. She’s also a piano player and songwriter herself, and the two sing together at a music store where the owner lets her play for an hour each day (“Falling Slowly”–the Oscar-winning song).
See, these two characters are also both dirt-poor, and through their eyes, we see a very working-class Dublin that also seems slightly out of date. They don’t have mobile phones, instead using payphones or corded phones in their home. She works as a cleaner and lives in a building which has only one TV that everyone has chipped in for. The story and the characters lives are pretty raw, with nary a speck of glamor.
The Guy and the Girl are just two ordinary people, both damaged and struggling in the midst of broken relationships, who in very a natural way bring life to each other. Interestingly, even though the relationship has got a strong romantic element, the focus is really on their friendship, and how both of them help the other realize how special, talented and worthwhile they each are. And it progresses in ways that are ultimately quite surprising. But none of it is neat and pretty; there’s a working-class edge to all their interactions.
The filming and the editing back up this rough tone. The movie makes a lot of use of long lenses and a slightly shaky, hand-held camera, so we end up feeling like we’re observing this relationship, a bit from the outside. But we’re drawn into them as well, because of their music, which is appropriate as it’s also what draws in each other.
One of my favorite sequences in the movie, for example, is right near the start: the Guy stands outside at night, playing his original song. We see him from quite a distance away, and he looks very alone. But as the song progresses and builds up in intensity, the camera wanders in closer, until we’re right in his face, sharing in his musical passion. As he finishes, the camera pulls away again, but not as far. As it does, it reveals from behind an observer, watching and listening from just a couple of meters away. In this way, we meet the Girl for the first time.
Like the rest of the movie, the musical performances are not highly produced. But they are real and authentic, thanks to the fact that the actors are not only singing & playing their own parts, but they wrote most of the songs as well. The pieces are so engaging that we kind of fall in love with the Guy and the Girl through the songs, in basically the same way that they do. This is especially true of the Oscar-winning song, which is the one they sing together in the music store.
Anyway, the long and the short of it is that I loved this movie. The same director also made Sing Street some years later, which is another film about Irish musicians. I’ve only seen the first 97% of the movie as the plane I was watching it on landed before I could finish, but it was also really good.
A final note–the Girl says a notable sentence in Czech at one point in the movie. It isn’t translated for the audience, and the Guy, whom she’s speaking to, doesn’t understand it either. In spite of his questions, she never tells him what she said. Since a bunch of the movie was improvised, the actor didn’t know what she was saying either! After you’re finished watching Once, if you liked the movie, look up what she said (it’s right there in the IMDb trivia page)–it adds an interesting additional shade in reflecting back on all of the story’s moods and emotions.
Enjoy the music video for the Oscar winning song, as well as a taste of the movie’s style, here: