John Carney’s Once is an Irish film that subverts a growing tradition: it’s a musical film that went on to have success on the stage (considerable Broadway success in fact). It stars two non-actors, Glen Hansard, whose band The Frames formerly featured Carney, and Markéta Irglová, a little-known 17-year-old Czech with musical links to Hansard. The collaboration between Irglová and Hansard, who was brought in after Carney’s initial target Cillian Murphy pulled out, leads to an outstanding musical score that forms the backbone of a film in which extraordinary little happens. We hear Irglová singing the hauntingly beautiful ‘If You Want Me’ as her character walks back from the shops for example. The soundtrack played no small part in the film’s considerable commercial and critical success. It brought in $23.3 million at the box office from a meagre budget of just $150,000; the song ‘Falling Slowly’ brought home the 2007 Oscar for Best Original Song. The film’s technical simplicity (it was filmed solely on digital cameras) results in a work that feels strangely raw and genuine.
We are initially introduced to a man, not given a name (simply named ‘Guy’ on the cast list), who busks day and night on Dublin’s renowned thoroughfare – Grafton Street – before returning home to his Dad’s hoover repair shop, where he both lives and works part-time. During the day, he plays covers of songs that will resonate with passing Dubliners; it is only at night that he plays originals, which impress a young Czech girl street-selling, who is also nameless (‘Girl’ on the cast list). Having learned that he can repair hoovers, she returns the following day with her broken hoover for him to fix, telling him that she is also a musician. She takes him to a piano shop whose owner lets her play one of his pianos, and their rendition of ‘Falling Slowly’, a song of his that he swiftly teaches her, makes their artistic and romantic chemistry clear from the offset.
Set in a Dublin that feels decades away from the modern era of high-rise office blocks and ludicrous rents, we are shown the struggle for a city’s soul through the toils of two of its poorer, more outcast inhabitants; a particularly grim early scene, in which Hansard’s character is robbed by a heroin addict who then pleads with him for money upon being caught, underlines the city’s dark heart that is never too far from revealing itself. Dublin’s beauty is also very much celebrated too though. A magical scene in which ‘Guy’ takes ‘Girl’ out on his motorbike to collectively admire the view of Dublin Bay from the top of Killiney Hill is a welcome break from the gritty urban landscape of the majority of the film.
The true beauty of Once lies in its depiction of the platonic romance that blossoms between its two main characters. Both characters are still recovering from past relationships, but their initial caution gives way to a musical and personal partnership that is as heart-warming as it is believable (the pair were in fact dating during filming). The film itself serves as a celebration of integration; a lonely Irishman and a lonely Czech brought together by their love of music and a desire to move on from the past. Their voices represent those rarely heard, brought to the big screen in a way feels unabashedly authentic.
Still, there is no shortage of earthy films starring Dublin and its residents. 2016’s Sing Street – also directed by John Carney – is another work featuring a brilliant soundtrack, focusing on a young boy who starts a band to impress a girl he likes. Its 80s Irish setting lucidly depicts many of the social and political issues faced by people at the time and makes for a beautifully bittersweet film whose characters are just as captivating as those in Once. A far bleaker outlook of Ireland’s capital is offered by two award-winning Lenny Abrahamson films: Adam and Paul and What Richard Did, both exploring the lives of people at the bottom and the top of the Dublin social ladder.
Once’s heart-warming portrayal of a unique romance, with its memorable and moving soundtrack, makes for a brilliantly engrossing film that sticks with you long after the credits roll.