The deserving winner of the world cinema dramatic audience award this year at Sundance, this Irish film is low-key in concept — "a simple, classic story of two artists falling in love" says writer-director John Carney — and thoroughly winning in execution. Its tone may be sweet and gentle, but it has the grit to resist going exactly where you'd expect it to. And it's the first film in years to mix music and story in a light-on-its-feet way that calls to mind Richard Lester's much faster-paced Beatles classics.
Filmmaker Carney, himself a former member of the Frames, first thought of using Hansard only for his songwriting skills but at a certain point realized that the singer, who had a small role in Alan Parker's "The Commitments," would be a better choice than more polished professionals.
Both Hansard and the remarkably poised Irglova, who was only 17 when "Once" was shot, bring an unforced intimacy to the film that is one of its strengths. Seeing their characters interact during the pivotal week they get to know each other is to be in the privileged position of eavesdropping on some of life's smallest but most memorable moments. We invest in these people completely, and they do not let us down.
Having musicians for stars enables Carney to fulfill the ambition he had for "Once," which was to make a kind of covert musical a film that "while not a traditional 'musical' (in the 1940s sense of the term) would still use a number of songs" to tell an involving boy-meets-girl story.
With the able collaboration of cinematographer Tim Fleming, Carney has come up with different visual ways to casually present each song. There are scenes in rehearsal spaces, recording studios, music stores and more.
One of "Once's" best songs, "If You Want Me," is heard as Irglova's character, wearing PJs and bunny slippers, is heading home from a visit to the neighborhood convenience store to get batteries for the portable tape recorder she is listening to.
But that's getting ahead of the story. "Once" opens with Hansard's nameless busker, or street musician, singing his heart out on the streets of Dublin. He is earnest and seemingly completely ordinary, and he spends his days singing other people's songs for spare change. But at night he busts out with the lyrics he wrote himself, and it is then that he attracts the attention of Irglova's equally nameless young woman.
A Czech immigrant who speaks English with an accent, the woman is also a street vendor, selling flowers or newspapers to make ends meet. She is also forthright, occasionally profane, and unblinkingly inquisitive in a way that unnerves the singer. He must have written that particular song for a woman, she insists, "you play this marvelous song to get her back."
The singer in fact has just broken up with his girlfriend, and is back living with his father and helping him repair vacuum cleaners, or Hoovers as they are known in this part of the world. Quite by chance, the woman has a vacuum that needs fixing, and when they take the bus to the repair shop the next day, he gives her his back story as he sings about being "a broken-hearted Hoover fixer sucker guy."
It turns out that the young woman is an accomplished musician herself, a pianist whose only chance to play is lunchtime on demo models at a piano showroom. The singer comes to hear her, and is so impressed that he immediately asks if she wants to collaborate right then and there on one of his tunes. Watching them slowly piece together the achingly beautiful "Falling Slowly" is simply magical.
While all of this may sound forced on paper, it does not play that way on screen for a pair of interlocking reasons. For one thing, "Once's" inevitably romantic plot is modern enough to shrewdly avoid ever playing out the way audiences will anticipate. For another, the music is so rich and completely satisfying and the characters so appealing "Once" makes us believe that this is all happening right in front of our eyes. We fall for each of these young people at the precise moment they are falling for each other, and what could be better than that?
"Once." MPAA rating: R for language. Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes. Exclusively at Pacific's ArcLight, 6360 W. Sunset Blvd. (at Ivar Avenue), Hollywood, (323) 464-4226.