(as published on MyLaw.net)
You’ll realize as the credits roll at the end of this achingly romantic musical that the lead characters never actually get named. They remain “Guy” and “Girl” for us. It’s enough – and what’s more, it’s strangely appropriate, this harkening back to the characters of the oldest folktales. Once carries the raw power of a beautiful little story, simply, and unforgettably told.
The guy is a street-side guitar player cum vacuum cleaner mechanic in Ireland; the girl’s an immigrant flower seller. Initially attracted by his music, she also happens to have a vacuum cleaner in need of repair. In the course of their conversation, turns out she’s a bit of musician too, and they head along to a musical store where she is well acquainted with the piano. They sit by the piano, the first line of “Falling Slowly” the movie’s Academy Award winner for Original Song starts to play -
“I don’t know you, but I want you all the more for that”
They begin to fall in love.
“Words fall through me, and always fool me, and I can’t react”
Simultaneously, you start falling in love with the movie.
She pushes him to write and perform more music, and over the course of the week that this movie takes place, that’s what they do together. Through music, lyrics and snatches of conversation, we find out more: the guy’s been struggling with his music career, as well as with the memories of his girlfriend who’s moved to London; the girl has an estranged husband back in the Czech Republic. Sure it’s a love story at heart, but a refreshingly unconventional one at that. The lovers never actually share even a kiss; their passion is expressed through the music.
And what music it is. Aside from the wonderfully composed Falling Slowly, there is the haunting “Lies” which plays over a montage of the Guy’s time with his girlfriend. “Little cracks they escalated” he sings, and we see a swift, moving chronicle of the demise of a relationship. Of course, he still has it in himself to be lighthearted about the whole thing, and so we also get the delightfully bitter “Broken Hearted Hoover Fixer Sucker Guy”. The girl’s heartache comes out in “The Hill”, a cry of frustration – “I wish I didn’t have to make all those mistakes and be wise”. Then there is suitably epic arrangement of a group number late in the movie –“When your mind’s made up”.
The offscreen story is almost as fascinating as the onscreen one: the film’s initial finances depended on Cillian Murphy as the lead, who then backed out. The director turned to the film’s songwriter and composer, Glen Hansard to take up the role opposite thethen 17 years old Marketa Irglova. The director’s own salary was given to the stars to manage basic finances – while the stars found themselves falling in love with each other over the course of the production, ending up in a relationship by shooting’s end. Stories for the ages, I’d say.
For once, it’s a bit hard to say much more, or to give you the exact reason why I loved this movie the way I did. The magical quality of Once is strangely intangible: sure, yes the performances are great, yes the music is wonderful, and yes, it’s a well-told story, but there is something else about this experience I have been unable to put a finger on. The closest I can come is to tell you that this feels like a story of two really well meaning, good people, who might be in love, but also recognize the need to do something to make the other happier.
And sometimes, that’s not the same as reciprocating that very love.