“How often do you find the right person?” asks the tagline. Once, replies the title. “I don’t know you, but I want you,” sings Guy (Glen Hansard). “Take this sinking boat and point it home,” joins in Girl (Markéta Irglová) on the chorus; two strangers playing from the same hymn sheet, lyrics replacing spoken word, feelings left unspoken until it’s far too late. Once, suggests John Carney’s magnificent, unique movie, is rarely enough.
Shot in Dublin on a titchy budget and piling up the plaudits after Sundance and Glastonbury screenings, this is a slight story with a big, big heart. Hansard is a busker, dividing his time between dad’s vacuum cleaner-fixing business and the Irish capital’s cobbled streets where he meets Irglová – a hardworking, straight-talking Czech immigrant who captures the dreamer’s imagination. Their awe for one another is clear, but with her having a hubby back in the homeland it’s a longing that can only be expressed in verse.
A musical where the performers don’t pose around and burst into random song mid-conversation, Carney’s film values realism over theatrics. The two leads co-wrote many of the tunes (one part acoustic Radiohead, two parts Damien Rice) and the angst is etched all over their faces, veins bulging from Hansard’s forehead as he finds himself frequently overwhelmed.
With Girl devout to her vows and sex a non-starter, music is the couple’s only communion; their orgasm being a studio performance of ‘When Your Mind’s Made Up’. It is the legacy of a love out-of-reach.
That song fades out with, “So, if you ever want something/And you call, call/Then I’ll come running” – sending a shiver up the spine of people who have wanted, but not received. Sure, it’s all far more affecting if you’re a fan of the music; but regardless, Once is an 85-minute ballad with musings on love and loss that cannot help but speak to everyone. How often does a film like that come about?