This touching Irish re-imagining of the classic backstage musical has a filmmaker's eye and a poet's heart

Once

on May 16, 2007 by Ray Greene
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One of the most revealing details about the Irish people is that when the Free State was founded and the modern Irish at last got to design their own currency, they put a harp on their money so that even in the most mercantile of moments, the Irish love of song, tale and verse would be present. That native love of music and storytelling is in full flower in Once , John Carney's unabashedly romantic updating of the old backstage Hollywood musical. Assuming Once can find an adventurous and imaginative distributor, this is possibly the first Irish-set song-and-story cycle since The Commitments to promise strong arthouse crossover appeal in the U.S.

Built out of director Carney's relationships from a previous career as a rock musician, Once features Irish singer/songwriter Glen Hansard as a heartsick busker with a battered guitar who forms an unlikely musical partnership with Marketa Irglova's expatriate Czech gamine a sidewalk flower-seller with a musical past of her own. Age, culture and life circumstance make theirs a love that has to happen in glances, and the songs that pass between them—simple, melodious stuff about loss, love and longing—become both their courtship and, in a sense, its consummation. Carney handles this delicate material with a warm assurance that is the perfect articulation of Hansard's sensitive tunes. When Irglova first appears to Hansard at the end of a long slow push-in on a darkened Dublin street, it's as if she has magically appeared to him as the answer to his howled out lover's prayer.

To use a music-biz phrase, this picture has “ears.” Unlike most musical films in the post-MTV era, Once knows when to stay with a performance and let the singing do the talking. Hansard (who was actually part of the ensemble in The Commitments ) is a screen natural, a battered charmer with a face that seems to laugh and weep at the same time, and Irglova lights up the screen with an assured and even world-weary performance remarkable for an actress who is all of 18.

In addition to being utterly convincing emotionally, their touching relationship offers a gentle glimpse into an Eastern and Western Europe that is in the midst of becoming one entity. How remarkable to think that cultures that 20 years ago still viewed each other with suspicion and mistrust are now not only neighbors but increasingly family. And how appropriate that this miraculous communion be celebrated so beautifully in the universal language of song. Distributor: Fox Searchlight
Cast: Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova
Director/Screenwriter: John Carney
Producer: Martina Niland
Genre: Musical drama
Rating: R for language
Running time: 88 min.
Release date: May 16, 2007 NY/LA
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