“Once” wins over critics with innocent charm

Alex Schaaf

In the midst of heavy award season, with Oscar nominations just having been announced, it is clear that the normal suspects will get their due. “There Will Be Blood” and “No Country For Old Men” are sure to win at least a few Oscars each, and deservedly so. However, there are always a few films that fly under the radar each year, and never get the amount of appreciation that they deserve. “Once” is one of those movies of 2007.After its premiere at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival almost exactly one year ago, “Once” received a strong show of support, earning the festival’s World Cinema Audience Award. In the past few weeks, the film has appeared on numerous critics’ top lists of 2007, as it became one of the most critically acclaimed movies of the year.

The movie was written and directed by John Carney, former bassist of the Irish band, The Frames. After struggling to find leads suitable to play the parts he wrote, he turned to his old friend Glen Hansard, lead singer and guitarist for The Frames. Carney has said that he was originally trying to find an actor who could “sort of sing,” and realized that he should have been looking for a musician who could “sort of act.” After this epiphany, Hansard became the perfect man for the job.

A large majority of the movie is filled with songs, but it is not your standard musical. The characters never spontaneously burst into song, Broadway-style. Rather, all the music is natural to the story; the characters are musicians playing songs for each other, rather than for the audience.

The movie centers around a guy and a girl in Dublin, played by Hansard and his female counterpart Markéta Irglová, a Czech pianist. Hansard’s character (credited only as “Guy”) is a busker on the streets of Dublin, playing his songs to pedestrians both day and night, whenever he’s not working in his father’s Hoover-repair shop. His passionate acoustic playing (think Damien Rice-style: wailing on an open chord with earnest and bitter lyrics) attracts the attention of Irglova’s Girl, who persuades him to fix her Hoover.

The climax of the film being a recording session in which Hansard’s character makes a demo tape to take to London, it is not your typical “meet, fall in love, live happily” movie. The ending may catch you off guard, but it is clear that it was the perfect period for the charming sentence that had been written.

The hook of the movie, for me, is that Hansard and Irglova are both musicians in real life, and that every piece of music that they sing in the movie was written by them. The fact that they then became a couple in real life adds even more to the power of the film, I believe. It becomes difficult to see them as characters, and not as real-life people being followed by a camera, as they seem so naturally fitted to the parts.

The film is cheaply shot, and perhaps this is what gave it its charm. On a limited budget, and sometimes with no filming permits, Carney often filmed with a long lens, so that Hansard and Irglova could be filmed while people passed by, unaware they were in the middle of a movie in progress. This method created a documentary feel to the film, as if the viewers were spying in on these characters’ lives.

“Once” is about going after your dreams, and it is about how sometimes the things that are the most obviously right are the things that are the most impossible. After viewing this the first time, I found my thoughts drifting back to it over the next few weeks, it was easily the most caught-up I’ve ever gotten in a movie. While the amazing performances of Hansard and Irglova may not receive as many accolades as Daniel Day-Lewis or Ellen Page this awards season, this is a film not to be missed.