Modern Masterpieces #1: Once
Rarely do we get a film quite as successful as John Carney’s Once; costing a minuscule €100,000, this Irish folk musical grossed over $20 million, won an Oscar for Best Original Song and spawned a hit West End musical, as well as charming critics and audiences alike. So how is it this incredibly low budget, low key 2007 romance featuring two musicians with one acting credit between them became so universally loved?
As the film starts, we see our loveable Irish busker (only named as “Guy” in the credits, and played by singer/songwriter Glen Hansard) running up the street as he chases a homeless thief who stole the small bit of loose change he’d earned throughout the day. It’d be incredibly easy to dismiss the film instantly, as the shaky handheld camera and rough quality clearly shows the meagre budget, and yet it would take a cynic to not take to it instantly. As we see “Guy” giving the thief a few Euros to stop him robbing again, he already comes across as a totally reasonable, understanding man and, along with Hansard’s perfectly charming performance, the Guy becomes a character we want to succeed. Rule of low budget film making number #1: If your characters are likeable enough, the audience will love the film no matter the production values.
After Hansard’s passionate performance of “Say It To Me Now”, in which he shouts aloud in the streets to an unknown woman who clearly caused him a great deal of hurt, we are introduced to “Girl”, played by the Czechoslovakian Markéta Irglová, making her screen debut. In one of the most adorable screen moments in history, he sarcastically celebrates as she gives him ten cents and she doesn’t understand the joke. Given their non-actor status, they give wonderfully funny and realistic turns, and from their first “meet cute”, you hope for a happy ending where they sing off into the sunset. For the first five minutes of a romance film, that’s a pretty great place to be.
Once first became well known through its Oscar winning song “Falling Slowly”, and it’s easy to see why. Not only is the musicianship wonderful and the harmonies beautiful, but the scene in which the duo perform the song, on their lunch break in an empty piano shop, captures music on film in a way many films have failed to do. The camera points almost statically at the two as the music grows and the vocals become louder and more passionate, and without the aid of fancy editing or huge crowds of emoting actors, we sit and watch, for three minutes, a simply fantastic performance.
Most film musicals (I’m looking at you, Les Misérables) have large budgets to spend on immense crowd scenes of shiny happy people singing stirring, key change-lead ballads or twee, cheesy pop music (I’m looking at you, High School Musical trilogy); Once has two scruffy, average looking people playing bare bones folk music in a completely ordinary setting and it achieves twice the emotion and spine tingling, goosebumps-inducing musical moments than every mainstream film musical combined.
Despite a couple of scenes, and songs, that are perhaps not as strong as the rest (Gold, the only ensemble song in which the two main characters go to a party and sing along, feels a little unnecessary), Once’s brief 86 minute runtime means it’s almost impossibly for the film to run out of steam. It’s a rare pleasure to find a film in which you’re happy just spending time with the characters as they live their lives; not since Before Sunrise and its sequel has a simple romance story been pulled off so effectively.
Partly, this is due to the almost complete lack of cliché and over-the-top romanticism of their relationship. There are no big romantic gestures (apart from, arguably, the ending), shared nights, heartfelt soliloquies or, really, anything beyond a close platonic friendship, longing looks and meaningful songs. As much as we want to see the Guy get the Girl, their relationship is somehow more meaningful and pure when they simply hang out and get to know each other; this is a romance film that shows the true side of love, the excitement of meeting someone new and exciting and sharing your passions. The feeling of wanting to hang around with someone and be with them without ever making a huge gesture for fear of losing them. In what could be described as the film’s most important and apt moment, the Guy asks the Girl of her newly uncovered Czechoslovakian “Do you love him?” Her reply, spoken in her native tongue, is left un-subtitled, leaving us as much in the dark as the Guy as to her true feelings.
For the cynical who remain unconvinced of this wondrous Irish fairy tale, for fear of cliché and routine plotting and characters, the ending should win over some non-believers. I’ll do my best not to spoil it, but it probably won’t unfold how you imagine. This isn’t a film which gives you everything you hope for or ends on a huge note of triumph, but it still leaves you satisfied. On initial viewing, it can seem disappointing, like the director deliberately chose to use a curveball in order to make the film more memorable. However, you soon begin to realise what a magnificent ending Carney has managed to pull off.
Both characters, though not entirely happy, have benefited and gained from their experiences throughout the film, and have a fresher, more positive outlook on their lives. Even though you won’t be as elated as you wish, the cheeky grin on Hansard’s face at the climax of the film will leave you feeling more positively.
Once may have its flaws (its tiny budget and handheld style were never going to produce the highest production values), and its short length combined with the budget do admittedly make it feel like a film perhaps not destined for the box office success it went on to achieve, but honestly, when a film is this passionate and loveable, pointing out its flaws spoils the fun. Casting two non-actors in the lead roles was a risky move on Carney’s part, but their occasionally stiff delivery and deliberate lack of dramatic actor ‘moves’ just adds to the film’s realism.
Irglová is cute and believable as the Girl, but Hansard really is fantastic as the Guy. He has a face of such happiness and joy that seeing him serious or sad is genuinely upsetting, and it’s his charismatic and good humoured performance that really keeps the film focused and enjoyable even in the slower sections. Two likeable leads are needed for a romance film such as Once, and its two fantastic leading actors, along with its rough-and-ready style, heart-warming songs and surprising melancholy, make Once a modern romantic masterpiece.
By Harry Ford