Maybe Once is that mythical “good Irish movie” that comes along roughly once every five years or so, or maybe I’m being a little soft on it, but I really enjoyed it when I caught it last night. It does have some rather glaring flaws, but it seems to work well despite them.
The central performances really aren’t up to much, though. Markéta Irglová is the stronger of the two leads, succeeding despite not speaking English as her first language. Unfortanately Glen Hanstead has no such excuse. Still, the two manage to have some sort of awkward chemistry that really works when the two are performing and singing (Hanstead seems much more comfortable in his natural environment). There’s an honest awkward charm between the two that works despite their limitations as actors.
The movie works stunningly well as a look at Dublin – almost like a nature documentary. Nothing is cleaned up or sanitized. All the locations actually exist and most of it makes geographic sense. The camera work, though clearly restricted by the budget (at one point the director attempts to pull off a “Scorsese”, tracking his female lead from a shop to her aparetment, but has to cut the sequence at the end in order to pull back for a sweeping shot of the street), is generally top notch. We were lucky enough to get an introduction from luke Gibbons who compared the film’s portrayal of a vital and living Dublin to Joyce. I wouldn’t go quite that far (it’s a relatively short film), but I get what he’s hinting at. The city ebbs and it flows. It is shopping streets and bus routes and back alleys. It’s a fantastic depiction of the city despite (or perhaps because of) the budget restrictions.
The introductory lecture also spoke of the ‘honesty’ and ‘fidelity’ of the film. I’d suggest that the story is as much a fable as it is a true-to-life story. There are several moments which significantly stretch the audience’s willing suspension of disbelief. Notably a scene where a banker performs an impromptu song for the two protagonists before offering them a loan. It seems notably false and exploitive. There’s also a sequence where the band melts the heart of the cliched, worn and weary studio technician (who goes from moaning to his mates about them to playing frisbee on a beach!). We get it – music is magic. But it isn’t really that magical. It doesn’t quite gel with the attempted realistic elements of the movie.
Still, the movie works. Mostly due a fantastic eye for beautiful scenery and a fantastic soundtrack. The film’s best sequence is the famous performance at Waltons (which has now become a place of pilgramage, apparently), where the two just start singing and playing. They seem at harmony. That is the magic of music. It doesn’t seem hackneyed or cliched or exploitive in the way that other scenes emphasising the theme do.
It just works.
Once stars Glen Hanstead and Markéta Irglová. It was released in ireland on the 23rd March 2007, and only achieved limited release in the United States.
I’d like to thank the Trinity Summer School for having me a long for a wonderful and insightful evening and Luke Gibbons for an interesting examination of the themes underpinning the movie.