Review: “Once”

In a time when big budget and very theatrical studio musicals are in vogue again, this cute little indie feature manages to quietly reinvent the entire genre with its endearing and enjoyable little story about romance between an Irish street musician and a young Czech woman.

Writer/director John Carney strips the genre of its artifice to deliver a thoroughly modern musical – one grounded in reality. There’s no big dance/set numbers, the dozen songs are sung and played either solo or as a duet and in every case (short of maybe one late night street wandering scene) fit completely naturally into both the story and the real world setting.

Yet when they hit home, like the film’s strongest number ‘Falling Slowly’ which is sung in a music shop early on, it truly resonates with you emotionally. A lot of that is helped by hiring real life musicians and friends Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova who handle all the numbers superbly and share an easy going chemistry that makes even some of the sub-standard songs work better than they should.

It’s a decidedly clunky film at times. When not singing the duo show they’re not trained thespians, which yields some clunky conversations and awkward silences along with a forced and somewhat unconvincing element to their romance – she comes off as icy, he just seems decidedly uncomfortable and both seem overly self-aware about being filmed. You want to see these two wind up together, but it often seems like neither of them would be happy with that arrangement despite their words to the contrary.

Carney’s style of shooting also leaves much to be desired with its poor framing and jittery style – not helped by the fact that the last half-hour is far more technically proficient than the first hour and shows he’s more than capable of doing better. Yet in spite of its flaws, there’s genuine warmth and emotional reaffirmation here which makes it a crowd pleaser that very much deserves to be seen.