Once Review

by Ed Lau on January 30, 2008

Once, Glen Hasard, Markéta Irglová

Yes, yes. I know…but hear me out.

This isn’t the sort of movie I usually watch but my “movie-watching partner”…god, that sounds really stupid when you say it out loud…insisted that we had to rent it. Since I owed her for the time I made her watch The Bourne Ultimatum (which I know she really likes but won’t admit it) instead of her crappy choice, I relented. I have a reputation to uphold so there wasn’t a chance in hell I was going to say it but I was actually rather looking forward to seeing this film. It’s a very small, sleeper indie flick that cost about as much as an Aston Martin ($150,000) but the buzz has been huge for the last six months. Critics everywhere have been raving about it but I’ve always put off seeing it. Either way, it was an opportunity to break out my “…finnnnee…but you owe me the next one.” when I’m probably just as excited to see it.

Once is the story of a street musician in Dublin, who like many street musicians (and I’ve heard lots) is immensely talented but never got a break and is now working in his father’s vacuum repair shop during the day and singing with his busted, worn guitar on a crowded shopping street. Guy, as I’ll call him since that’s what he’s called in the credits (we never hear his name in the film), never seems to have any luck as his guitar case holding the meager change he’s collected during the day is snatched in broad daylight by a junkie. He gives chase and eventually catches up but rather than beating the crap out of the dude, he hands him some money and tells him to ask next time rather than making him run after him.

Once, Glen Hasard, Markéta Irglová

During the day, Guy usually plays more popular, mainstream tunes as he believes passer byers will be more likely to drop some coins if they hear a song they’re familiar with but at night, he plays some that he wrote himself. This is where he meets…we’ll call her “Girl”, since, again we don’t know what her actual name is. She, a gorgeous Czech immigrant who cleans houses and sells flowers on the street, is instantly drawn to his original song and, after bringing her broken vacuum to him the next morning, the two sit down and play one of Guy’s original songs at a local music shop. This is the beginning of the friendship that we see grow during the course of the week which Once takes place.

This is not your typical love-story. It is a very, very real portrait of the two main characters. The shaky, hand-held camera work makes this film almost documentary-like. You never get the sense that these are actors on screen. Sure, neither Glen Hansard nor Markéta Irglová are perfect actors but on screen, you seriously get the idea that you’ve gotten to know two people in a depth seldom seen in such a short time. There’s no “extras” in production here. The cinematography is sparse and raw, accentuating the power of the cast and the script, not overpowering it like many mainstream Hollywood films. The story is the main attraction here. The fact that the leads are relatively unknown works well for them here and since they’re both musicians by trade, it makes Once even more charming and honest. I love that we don’t know what their names are. It makes it seem as if we’re simply looking in on their lives. We know so much about them despite lacking this one fundamental piece of their persona. They sometimes appear awkward, nervous and tense in each other’s presence like what they are…two people who just met. Emotions here don’t smack you in the face like other films of similar genre. They’re subtle and understated. The film’s conclusion may not be what one would expect and some may not be quite satisfied with it but it is a very good end to a very good film.

Once, Glen Hasard, Markéta Irglová

The musical numbers are fantastic and seamlessly woven into the movie, making it a bit more like a musical, actually. Songs are sung in near entirety and scenes are often centered around the music. Although Hansard makes an annoying “O” face when he goes for the falsetto, his voice is very appropriate for the folky, acoustic songs. The guitar he uses in the movie is actually his guitar. Irglová, on the other hand, sings backup on most of the songs but the times she sings solo or lead, for me, were the standouts. Her slightly broken English and frail, delicate voice is beautiful, lending to the working-class, single-mother hardship she’s faced. Amazing performances by both and very, very deserving of the Oscar nod the movie’s soundtrack song Falling Slowly has received this year. There’s several fantastic performances on YouTube including this one live at Sundance last year and one on Letterman but I think the best is this one…

Last year, I took a course at UBC on Irish cinema which looked at some of the best Ireland had to offer such as classics like Angela’s Ashes. I’m quite confident that Once will one day end up in that course as this not simply one of the best films I’ve seen from Ireland, but one of the best films I’ve seen this year, period. It’s out on DVD and shouldn’t be too hard to find. I highly recommend you do so.

Heck, I liked it so much I’m going to go buy a copy. Shhh…remember, I never said that.

Verdict: 9.0 out of 10

in Entertainment

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Leo January 31, 2008 at 11:44 am

Congratulations Ed, your estrogen levels just went up a notch ;)


Mike Olbinski January 31, 2008 at 4:13 pm

Nothing wrong with liking this movie…yeah, it’s a love story, but far from a chick flick I believe.

Good review of it, I thought it was one of the best of the year, in fact I’d put it #2 behind Juno personally, but that’s only because Once really touched me…it was just so simple, so brilliant and so moving.

Glad to see another person enjoy it!


horror movies guy February 7, 2008 at 10:27 pm

This is a great movie! It isn’t your typical musical film and I think that’s why it stands out. Great story and wonderful music…..I already bought it.


Shandy November 14, 2008 at 8:02 am

Hi! I’m Shandy
nice to meet you :)
I come from Taiwan

Recently, I just have seen this film
also, it’s the first time that I see Irish movie
What an awesome movie!

the music is so smooth, simple and beautiful
it really touch my heart
In spite of different langauge,
the story brings tears to my eyes
I fall in love with it
(sorry, my English is poor, haha


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