Cillian Murphy is a rising young actor who has delivered several fine performances of late (in Batman Begins, Red Eye, and Breakfast on Pluto, among others) and possesses arguably the most piercing blue eyes since Paul Newman. So it is a considerable surprise that, to date, his greatest contribution to cinema may be a movie he wasn't in.
Murphy, who before taking up acting was a nearly-signed rock singer, had been slated to star in and produce Once, an indie-rock musical directed by fellow Irishman John Carney. But when Murphy discovered that Carney had cast a nonprofessional actress as his co-lead and heard some of the vocally complex songs he was expected to sing, he--and with him, all the financing--pulled out of the project.
So Carney turned to the man who had written the songs and recommended the female lead in the first place: Glen Hansard of the Irish band The Frames. (Carney had been the group's bassist in the early 1990s.) Hansard, who'd appeared in exactly one film--a supporting role in Alan Parker's The Commitments 15 years earlier--was persuaded to play the missing lead, and Carney put the film together in three weeks for a meager $150,000, all of it supplied by the Irish Film Board.
The result should shame filmmakers with budgets a thousand times larger. Once is a small miracle, an unprepossessing gem that is at once true to life and utterly magical. It is also one of the best romantic comedies in a generation, provided one is willing to define that category broadly enough to accept a film that delivers few jokes and contains just a single kiss--on the cheek. The word "winsome" was invented for experiences such as this.
The winner of the audience award at Sundance, Once opened a few weeks ago in a tiny number of theatres scattered across the country. And while that number has increased each week (to 120 screens nationwide, at last counting), it won't be around for long, so if you can find it, see it. Quickly. (Yes, this is a late recommendation, but one, I think, firmly in the better-than-never camp.)
Hansard plays a Dublin busker (i.e., street musician) who performs covers for the crowds by day and his own compositions to the empty sidewalk by night. Until one night, that is, when the sidewalk turns out not to be empty. A young Czech immigrant (Markéta Irglová) stops to listen and then questions him with invasive but charming directness: Who did you write that song for? Where is she? Is she dead? Hansard is at first put off by his inquisitor, but gradually warms. When she asks what his day job is, a concrete link is formed: He fixes vacuum cleaners in his dad's shop; she has a vacuum cleaner in need of fixing. Might she bring it by for him to take a look at?
Thus begins one of the most endearing associations in recent cinema. She brings her Hoover by the next day, dragging it by the hose like a leashed puppy. Hansard is again annoyed by the imposition, but ultimately agrees to take a look at the machine. ("What's wrong with it?" he asks. "It's fucked," she replies matter-of-factly, draining the word of any hint of obscenity.) Soon enough, their relationship moves beyond vacuum cleaners. Irglová, too, is a musician, a classically trained piano player. And while she is too poor to afford her own piano, the proprietor of a music shop allows her to play one in the back of his store during lunchtime. Irglová invites Hansard to join her with his guitar and they share a duet, tentatively at first and then with increasing confidence. (One of the few coynesses of the film--though one easy to ignore--is that neither of the lead characters is given a name.) From this first, informal collaboration arise others: She writes lyrics for one of his songs, and later joins the thrown-together "band" with whom he records demos of his music.
With the exception of one clumsy proposition, angrily declined, it is never stated but always evident that the two are also falling in love. But there are complicating factors: the girlfriend who left Hansard for London and for whom he still pines; the mother and young daughter who live with Irglová, and the estranged husband she left behind in the Czech Republic. And though these might appear to be surmountable obstacles, neither character makes any great effort to surmount them. It's as if both recognize that what they have between them, their romantic non-romance, is too delicate to burden with heavier demands.
The result is a love-affair-by-other-means, and the means are primarily musical. Opinions will vary of the songs themselves, which have been widely compared, both in flattery and disdain, to Coldplay. (For my part, I found them frequently affecting, though the tendency of almost every one to begin as a quiet lament before building to a wailing chorus becomes a little tiresome.) On some level, though, it hardly matters: Hansard and Irglová are not performing for us, exactly, but for themselves and for one another, their songs like a runoff channel for the overflow of feelings they cannot share directly. The result is musical numbers that are simultaneously undersold and brimming with meaning. One in particular, in which Irglová walks the nighttime streets in pajamas and bunny slippers, composing lyrics as she listens to her Discman, is the most evocative, unforgettable sequence I've seen in a movie this year.
Hansard is very good as a likable layabout whose stabs at cynicism do nothing to obscure a generous heart. But Irglová is a true find. Just 19 years old, the Czech singer-songwriter (with whom Hansard had collaborated on an earlier album) conjures a character with thicker armor than her costar and, belying her age, greater maturity. She, like the film, knows that the easiest, most obvious thing to do (kiss him, for goodness sake!) is not necessarily what will serve her best in the end. Rather than presenting her child and husband as complications to be solved, the movie recognizes that they are her reality; Hansard is the complication. In an era when Hollywood has largely lost the ability to distinguish between romance and sex, Once is the rare film that recognizes that love is no less love for being held in check, it is merely a different kind of love. Sixty years after David Lean's most intimate masterpiece, Brief Encounter, this is still a controversial cinematic assertion.
The film Once resembles still more closely, though, is Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise, another minor-key marvel of romantic portraiture. As in that film, the two leads do not face any particular challenges together beyond the simple, and yet immensely complicated, task of deciding what they think of one another and what they want to do about it. Indeed, apart from their underlying conflicts, the lives of Hansard and Irglová seem almost charmed: Whereas a typical film would include a few unhappy swerves on the road to the successful demo session, Once motors pleasantly along from small victory to small victory. The potential heavies encountered--Hansard's dad, the man in charge of a bank loan, the skeptical recording engineer--are all quickly won over; the eventual fruition of his music career seems secure. All that remains is the question of love. I won't say how the film answers it, except to note that it is exactly right, an ending equal parts happy and sad, and somehow deeply affirming--a remarkable achievement at any price.
This post originally appeared at TNR.com.