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A street musician and a Czech immigrant find perfect harmony in each other's company in director John Carney's summer surprise, an impossibly romantic Irish lo-fi musical that is more joyful and enlightening than a Chicago or a Dreamgirls.


Much like Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise, this dreamy duet between a Dublin singer-songwriter and a single mother isn't so much a love story but a study in how and why two potential soul mates may or may not fall in love. When not fixing vacuum cleaners, a self-proclaimed "brokenhearted, Hoover-fixer sucker" of a musician (Glen Hansard, lead singer of The Frames) performs other people's songs on street corners for pennies. At night, when he thinks no one's within earshot, he belts out his own ballads that reveal his deep regret at not following his girlfriend to London. But the guitarist has an enraptured audience in a young woman (singer Marketa Irglova). She's also nursing a broken heart. She's separated from her husband, who remained in the Czech Republic after she moved to Ireland to give her baby daughter a better life. Oh, and wouldn't you know it, she happens to tickle the ivories. Soon enough, the two find a piano and work on one of the musician's emotionally raw songs. They so hit it off—musically, that is—that they end up in a recording studio, laying down tracks for a demo that the musician hopes will finally lead to his big break. Now he's ready to go to London. But will she go with him? More important, will they act on their mutual attraction? You hope they do. They seem so right for each other.


Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova know how to make beautiful music together. Before filming Once, Hansard and Irglova collaborated on the 2006 CD The Swell Season. And, after watching their nameless strangers bond over their love of music in Once, it should hardly come as surprise that they are now a real-life couple. The short hand that exists between these amateur actors has transferred to the relationship between the struggling musicians that they portray so naturally and movingly. Hansard exudes genuine shock the first time he sets eyes on Irglova. It's the look of a man who's just been struck by Cupid's arrow and doesn't know what to do or say next. Beyond offering his services as a vacuum cleaner repairman, that is. Hansard proudly wears his heart in his sleeve, but he also knows when to keep his emotions in check—he's not interested in making his lonely and confused musician a fool for love. Irglova, though, retains an air of mystery about herself. You're initially not sure what Irglova wants—friendship or something more—but she never comes across as coy or manipulative. Besides, she can win over any doubters with her glorious smile. Her passion for music is what initially attracts her to Hansard, and her feelings for him grow stronger and deeper with every song they sing together. They pour their heart and soul into their melancholy duets. Once is always at its most stirring whenever Hansard and/or Irglova sing, but even when a necessary quiet settles over the proceedings, a look or a gesture carries with it the promise of love.


Can we pretend Chris Columbus' sanitized version of Rent does not exist? That way, John Carney can make the uncompromising film adaptation of Jonathan Larson's Broadway hit that we deserve. Having served as The Frames' ex-bass player and a music video director, Carney knows what clichés to avoid when putting a song such as the wistful "When Your Mind's Made Up" on film. He doesn't rely on fancy camerawork or flashy editing whenever Hansard and Irglova break into song. So what if that makes Once more VH1 than MTV? Thanks to Carney's fly-on-the-wall approach, you find yourself caught up in the fervor and conviction with which Hansard and Irglová belt out their poignant songs, even if they're just sitting down on a piano bench in a music store. Carney also doesn't shoehorn the songs into the narrative, ensuring Once never devolves into a 90-minute music video. When the singing stops, Once aches with a sense of longing that was absence from the equally intimate but tediously verbose Before Sunset. Whereas you weren't quite sure whether Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy should take a chance on love, you know instantly that Hansard and Irglová deserve a lifetime of happiness together. But Carney keeps us in suspense. It's not until the last song's been sung do we know whether he will go all Before Sunrise on us or give us a Hollywood ending à la Music and Lyrics. Unlike that silly Hugh Grant-Drew Barrymore romcom, though, Once makes us care whether Hansard and Irglova's hearts go pop.

Bottom Line rated this film 3 1/2 stars.