Bad movie romances are emotional comfort food, reassuring us that the stars we like will find true love in the face of plot contrivances, the way that real people normally act, or even the tragic death of one of the leads. Great movie romances, like the 2006 Irish film Once, aren’t afraid to ask why these people should be together, or if they should be together, and consider real reasons that they should be kept apart.
The story is just this simple: Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova play a pair of struggling Dubliners (“Guy” and “Girl,” according to the end credits) who fall in love via the music that they share. That may not seem like enough for a full-length movie, but Once is basically a musical; where a romantic comedy might have a long slapstick set-piece, this film simply draws out one of Hansard’s songs to its full length, until the scene is as long as a Gene Kelly dance number.
This film got more out of non-professional actors than any movie I’ve ever seen.* In order to portray a pair of characters who can best express themselves through music, director James Carney found a pair of actors who can only express themselves through music. Hansard (who performed with Carney in the folk band The Frames) seems flat with the spoken word, and Irglova has the same problems while not even acting in her native language, but put them in front of a guitar or piano and they transform into Tracy and Hepburn.
Simply consider the scene where they first practice the song “Falling Slowly” (which won the Oscar for Best Original Song). Hansard knows how to be the guy who has already put a lot of emotion into his music by himself. But he and Irglova had collaborated before, and would go on to release three albums as The Swell Season after the film became a hit, so they also know how to play people who are feeling their way into a song together. They simply do not have a false moment during the movie’s musical scenes.
After reading more about how the film was made, it may well be that Hansard was the only man who could have played his role. The role was offered to Cillian Murphy – who is Irish, though his flawless American accent in Christopher Nolan’s films might have fooled you – but Murphy felt that the highest notes in Hansard’s songs would be too difficult for him to sing. Hansard landed in the role because, on the film’s limited budget, he was the only other man to do the job.
At times it may feel that the movie is a bit padded. While the songs are emotional and powerful, they are quite long, longer than an MTV child like myself is used to. The opening scene, while funny, does not seem to have any reason to be there as it doesn’t set anything up for the rest of the film (I might have preferred that the movie open with the next scene, a slow dolly in on Hansard busking in the street).
It’s difficult to describe what exactly it is about Once that is so enthralling. It has to be seen, the way that Irglova and Hansard respond to each other during a song, and fall in love through the response. They’re uncovering something special, something personal, something that I, as a non-musician, simply can’t understand. It’s no surprise that Hansard and Irglova dated for a while after the film became an indie hit; they knew that something special had happened on that set too. Maybe they are the only ones who can really know.
Reviewed by Mark Young
*Hansard had actually acted before, as a musician in the excellent 1991 film The Commitments. But his role in that film could best be described as “minuscule,” so he wasn’t far from being a non-professional in this movie.