Esteban Gonzalez’s review published on Letterboxd:
“What's the Czech for "Do you love him"?”
It’s going to be very difficult to find another romantic musical feel as natural as John Carney’s Once. In most musicals when you hear the characters singing out their lines there is something that doesn’t feel authentic about it and you’re reminded that it’s just a movie, but in Once every moment unfolds in such a natural way that at times it feels as if you’re watching an intimate documentary of two passionate musicians. The relationship between the two leads also develops in a rather refreshingly authentic way and the story avoids all the worn out cliches found in most romantic films. The dialogue, the song writing, the performances, and the chemistry between the two leads makes Once a beautiful love letter for aspiring musicians everywhere. Made with an extremely low budget and interpreted by two non-professional actors (Glen Hansard is actually the band leader of The Frames in which Carney was once a member of), it still manages to be emotionally engaging. The performances are incredibly natural and intimate, but the cinematography does suffer a bit from the low budget because the camera work is pretty amateurish. The scenes that take place at night and the lightning aren’t that great, but the story more than makes up for it. I’d say that it even helps make the experience all that more natural. There are even several spontaneous moments in the film that work to its advantage, such as the unscripted scene in which Hansard’s character sings a song in the bus about how his heart was broken. It’s a small film, but it hit all the right emotional chords in such a powerful way.
The film begins in a rather funny note as the unnamed main character (Glen Hansard) is playing his guitar and singing for money in the streets of Dublin when all of a sudden a junkie takes his money and he chases him down through a couple of stores. One night as he is playing, an immigrant girl (Marketa Irglova) congratulates him for his music. The two begin talking about music and pretty soon they establish a nice friendship. He is living with his widowed dad (Bill Hodnett) and helps him fixing vacuum cleaners in his repair shop, and she sells flowers in the streets while trying to care for her mother (Danuse Ktrestova) and young daughter. He goes on to explain that his ex-girlfriend cheated on him and she’s living in London now. The unnamed girl also tells him her story and explains that she is married but that her husband is living in the Czech Republic. The two married when she got pregnant but he had to return home. Despite being very fond of each other the two decide to remain friends. They collaborate together to make a music demo so that he can take with him to London to see if he can sign a music contract, and the film focuses on their time together during these days as they each share their stories and sing revealing songs to each other.
It’s refreshing to see a romantic film like this that feels so authentic and natural. It is more about two people who are very fond of each other and develop feelings for one another in a very honest way. Similar in style to Carney’s Begin Again, the film focuses on a different kind of love and we see it in an early scene where the guy asks the girl to spend the night at his place and she immediately is offended and leaves. It’s a simple story, but it tells it in a heartfelt way that is hard to ignore. At the same time the music also becomes part of the story and it builds it even more. Irglova and Hansard are delightful together and you really believe what they are feeling through their songs. They carry this lovely film in such a way that it makes most other romantic films seem completely fake. Add Once to the list of must see films for music aficionados because it is truly a wonderful experience and a well written love letter from Carney.