Saturday, December 22, 2007


“Take this sinking boat
And point it home;
We’ve still got time.

“Raise your hopeful voice,
You had the choice;
You’ve made it now.”
-- Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova
“Falling Slowly”

Once, which follows an Irish busker (Glen Hansard) and his growing relationship with a young Czech immigrant (Marketa Irglova), is one of those little films that catch you by surprise with its earnest depiction of bruised souls reaching for something better in their lives.
It’s also a musical, though I should hasten to qualify, it’s not the sort of musical where gaudily-outfitted people suddenly burst into boisterous song and energetic choreography. As Once’s main characters are both musically-inclined (Hansard’s character plays the guitar, while Irglova’s plays the piano), all the film’s songs arise organically from the on-screen action.

What makes Once even more noteworthy is the fact that the songs written and played and sung by the characters are actually written and played and sung by the stars. And not only can they write and sing, they can also act.
While Irglova’s earnest and straight-forward immigrant is commendable in her certitude and quiet self-possession, the eye-opener here is Hansard. There’s a sense of genuine honesty in his performance that paints a very real portrait of a young man haunted by the ghost of the woman who broke his heart, the woman he never quite got over. The legacy of pain she left in her wake still fuels his artistic drive, even after years have passed. (In one of the film’s songs, Hansard describes his character as a “broken-hearted Hoover-fixer sucker guy,” since he helps his father at a hoover shop, and still wants the girl who cheated on him and, well, broke his heart.)

Then, as if Once wasn’t commendable enough for all that, the principals’ rather realistic performances become even more laudable when you realize that both Hansard and Irglova are not professional actors, but rather, musicians by trade.
Hansard is the lead singer and songwriter for Irish rock band of long-standing, The Frames, while Irglova is a Czech pianist Hansard collaborated with on the album The Swell Season.
Initially, Once’s writer and director John Carney—who had been The Frames’ original bass player—had asked Hansard to write some songs and play busking consultant for the film, which was meant to star Cillian Murphy (from 28 Days Later and Breakfast on Pluto, though perhaps most widely known as Batman Begins’ Scarecrow).
But somewhere along the way, Murphy fell out of the project, and just as it looked like the production would collapse, Carney hit upon the notion of asking Hansard to take the role. Hansard, who had only appeared previously on film in a small role in Alan Parker’s The Commitments, agreed. (Then 17-year old Irglova was already in place by this time, having gotten there through her past collaboration with Hansard; in point of fact, three tracks from The Swell Season found their way onto Once.)

What has emerged from that set of circumstances is a film shot on digital in 17 days for $150,000, that has gone on to capture hearts—and awards—around the world. (Amidst a number of nominations, some of Once’s notable wins were the Audience Award at this year’s Dublin International Film Festival and Sundance Film Festival, where it was also nominated for the Grand Jury Prize.)

“I really did think when we made this film that we had made a film that very few people would want to see or maybe only people who are interested in music would want to see, and it turns out to be something quite different, which is great.”
-- John Carney

Now if the track “Broken Hearted Hoover Fixer Sucker Guy” isn’t enough of an indication, it should also be noted that Once has its own simmering sense of humour, a rogue twinkle in its eye, amid all the emotional and moving bits.
What’s interesting though about those “emotional and moving bits” are that they’re very quiet and understated. In that sense, Once plays by a set of rules that are diametrically opposed to those of a standard Hollywood musical, where everything is overblown and operatic, where emotions are larger than life, and twice as loud, and always come with an accompanying dance number.
So let’s call Once an anti-musical then, shall we? Or perhaps, a quasi-musical. If it needs a label, then maybe that’s it.

Whatever you call it though, what I am certain of is this: Once is a heart-achingly brilliant piece of cinema about fortuitous accidents and being touched and changed by the strangers who enter our lives.
And ultimately, it’s about needing to mend old wounds, and exorcise old ghosts, with the pure and liberating power of music.

“Falling slowly,
Eyes that know me,
And I can’t go back.
Moods that take me and erase me,
And I’m painted black.

“Well, you have suffered enough
And warred with yourself;
It’s time that you won.”
-- Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova
“Falling Slowly”

Parting shot: Once has been nominated at next year’s Independent Spirit Awards for Best Foreign Film. Congratulations to John Carney and company!
Winners will be announced on February 23, 2008.

(Once OS courtesy of; The Swell Season and Once soundtrack sleeve art courtesy of

No comments: