‘Once’ sings with integrity and grace

Ben Raymond



A tall, pleasant man stands near an alleyway, singing softly to his guitar. A mellow, green glow falls from shop lights, revealing his dark, passive eyes, patchy beard and lonely expression. His clothes are shabby and worn. His guitar is beaten and splintered, its case open, a few silver coins tossed casually inside. Dubliners pass by – their hands rooted deeply in their pockets, tightly clenching their change. The man plays on, crying out his sweet and mournful tune.

The song ends. The last chord recedes into the night. Expecting silence, the man looks up shyly when he hears soft, arrhythmic clapping. A woman stands beside him with a childlike smile, applauding gently between her gloves. She pauses a moment before speaking, as if the song has yet to finish in her head.

“Did you write that song?” she asks. The man stands utterly still, bewitched and speechless.

So begins “Once,” an enchanting, organic love story that is, without question, one of the finest, most touching romances in modern film history. A frank, sobering portrait, “Once” perfectly captures, with astonishing artistry and nearly unbearable pathos, both the beauty and the tragedy of an unrequited love.

Starring real-life musicians (and couple) Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, “Once” is a modern musical that tells the tale of a heartbroken musician, down on his luck and eager for love, who meets a mischievous, free-spirited pianist that immediately captures his heart. They quickly form a bond and unite their talents to make vibrant, soulful music and, in the process, try against the odds to devote themselves to one another. But the responsibilities of the past and the uncertainty of the future threaten to end their short-lived courtship before it’s given a chance to flourish.

Hansard delivers a charismatic and handsome performance. He is charming and warm and plays his songs with unabashed passion. The highlight of the cast is unarguably Irglová. Adorable, rambunctious and an awe-inspiring vocalist, Irglová’s presence resonates throughout the picture, elevating the film each and every time she is on screen. She is somber and joyous in a single moment, delightful and tragic in a single glance – a truly captivating woman.

Writer/director John Carney also deserves a great deal of praise. His use of long tracking shots, natural lighting and sound immeasurably add to the film’s authenticity. The camera feels like another character – idle, yet observant of the love story around it. It sweeps in and out of alleys, crosses crowded streets and flies from open windows.

But, again, the film is all about Hansard and Irglová.

Much like in the film, Hansard immediately fell in love with Irglová and asked her to write songs with him. The rest, as they say, is history.

In 2006 they released their collaborative work “The Swell Season,” the album from which most of the film’s songs are borrowed. Their rough acoustic sound is rustic and earthy. Vocals are peaceful and sad. Each track seems more distant, lonelier than the next, as if they’re telling the listener a slow, sad story.

The album opens with whimsical, buoyant melodies. Long, euphonic choruses end in a joyous, aggressive climax. As the album progresses, optimism quickly turns to apathy – a series of entrancing, mournful ballads. Songs titled “Lies,” “Leave” and “Alone Apart” end the album.

And so it is with “Once.” The film begins with freshness and anticipation; the prospect of love is nearly palpable. The audience shares in the bliss of the characters’ courtship. But brightness soon turns into conflict as the ills of the past bring the promise of a fruitless and fleeting romance.

The real-life chemistry between Hansard and Irglová makes for some of the most genuine romance you’re ever likely to encounter. Their real-life love story adds a profound sense of authenticity to the film and, more remarkably, lends a certain attainability to achieving such mutual devotion.

The film is not diluted by bleeding-heart clichés or over sweetened with brazen happiness. It is not flirtatious or silly. It is honest, poignant and real. It portrays love as it really is: a harrowing and beautiful struggle.

“Once” does not venerate or mystify love. It does not meditate on it, reducing love to a universal good or evil. No effort is made to define or categorize. “Once” allows the audience to experience the story personally with unparalleled intimacy. We struggle with the characters, savor their rapture and endure their misfortune. Our emotions crescendo and diminish on a whim, a symphony of joy and regret. This is poetry in motion.

“Once” is organic, lively and a complete delight. A dynamic, heartrending picture with moving performances and a mellifluous musical score, it is a rousing tribute to music, art and the many dimensions of love.

Try as I might, I feel I have failed to fully capture the film’s beauty. It affected me deeply. It was touching to a degree rarely experienced in modern filmmaking. I urge everyone to see it for themselves. I feel that by attempting to summarize it, I have, in some way, reduced it, made it smaller. “Once” is to be experienced. It demands one’s attention, not analysis.