John Carney, Ireland, 2006, 85 min.
Even after watching films for your whole life, you still manage to get blown away by something new and different and perfect every few years. For me, Once is that film.
Writer and director John Carney manages to keep the film thoroughly engaging without resorting to action or sex or conflict. It’s the story of a young Irish guitar player, and his relationship with a Czech immigrant who he meets while playing music on the street. Simple enough, right?
What you may not know is that most of the film is spent just watching these two play music together. Not just any sort of music, either. Good music. Heartfelt folk-rock written and performed by the two actors: Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova.
They meet bychance in the street and soon after realize that they both have one thing in common: The love of music. They start to play together, and we can watch their relationship and their emotions unfold through the songs that they play. This is by no means a “romance”, however. For the whole movie, they never kiss. The connection between them is palpable, but they both have other commitments. She has a child, and a husband still in the Czech Republic. He has a lost love in London that he still has feelings for, and more importantly the chance to make something of himself.
The only thing the two unnamed main characters have for their relationship is the music they create. It starts off private, just the two of them, but soon the music takes over the whole film. As the characters become closer and closer, the viewer comes closer and closer to them through their songs.
What is really remarkable about this film is that the premise is so simple and so powerful, but I have never seen anything like it before. Its a musical, but instead of the giant Hollywood show-stoppers, we get small intimate recording sessions. Instead of visual flair, we get emotional depth. Instead of wildly unrealistic setpeices, we get incredibly moving true-to-life scenarios.
The director keeps things simple. Simple camera placement, natural lighting, hand held shots, long takes. He lets the music and the characters speak for the film, directing subtly and with a simple grace missing from so many things in life.
What really holds it together is the music. The instense heart-felt vocals and sweet melodies of the lead actors. If the music was bad, then this film would have been bad as well, but with two such talented people as Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova in the leads, this film is anything but. It is a must see by any standard.