Once – The Little Irish Film That Could


Once wasn’t meant to be such a success story. On paper, it certainly doesn’t sound like one. Shot in Dublin over 17 days, for a mere £75,000, it was an art-house musical (a ‘visual album) with two relatively unknown leads who had little acting experience. There isn’t too much dialogue. The loose plot explores the unlikely relationship between a busker and an immigrant single mother and the highlight of the movie is the recording of a demo tape.

No, it was not meant to be a success. It was definitely not meant to gross $20million world-wide; capture the attention of Stephen Spielberg; win the Independent Spirit Award at Sundance; secure a Grammy nomination for Best Soundtrack; win an Oscar for Best Song; have its leads immortalised in an episode of The Simpsons or be turned into a Tony Award winning Musical. But it did and it did so because of, not in spite of its humble beginnings.

We never even find out the lead characters names!



For those of you who haven’t seen it, Once charts the tale of a brief friendship between a broken hearted busker and wannabe full-time musician, played by Glen Hansard and a Czech immigrant, played by Marketa Irglova who is a young mother and fellow songwriter. They meet on the Dublin streets, they write songs together and she encourages him to record a demo to take to London. Their relationship grows, he fixes her vacuum cleaner and meets her daughter. She has a husband. He has an ex-girlfriend. They form a beautiful connection but never kiss. It is simple, natural but quite magical.


The film’s writer and director John Carney claims he came up with the idea for Once in about five minutes as he was missing his actor girlfriend who had moved to London. He told The Guardian, ‘I was sitting there thinking, “Where has the Dublin I knew gone?” The city has shed a lot of its greatness. It has lost its soul. I was seeing all these new immigrants in Dublin and identifying with them. I decided I wanted one character who was a Dubliner and one who was not.’ Carney makes the subtle point that his characters are living in a changing city where the economic boom has passed them by and the decisions they have to make are getting harder and harder.

Chance played a large part in the making of the movie. Hansard had known Irglova since she was 13 and his band, The Frames, played at a European Festival her father was running. He introduced her to Carney who, despite her lack of acting experience, cast her opposite Cillian Murphy who was originally slated to play the male lead. When Murphy dropped out (along with quite a lot of the funding), Carney turned to Hansard, who had previously acted in Alan Parker’s The Commitments as bassist Outspan Foster, and who was writing the songs anyway. With less money now available and distribution looking unlikely, the original plan was to sell the DVD at Hansards gigs.

Director John Carney with Hansard and Irglova on the streets of Dublin
Director John Carney with Hansard and Irglova on the streets of Dublin

Carney cut corners where he could, filming with a long lens on the streets of Dublin without a permit, using friends and family as extras and filming a party scene in Hansards own flat where Irglova made all the food. This home-spun feel gives the movie its heart. The actors are relaxed, a lot of the dialogue improvised and the focus remains on their relationship with each other and with music and how they express themselves through music. For a musical, it is realistic rather than outlandish. The songs come organically from the story and no one here is bursting into orchestrated song. The songs drive the relationship and the movie forward without seeming to try too hard. We can tell that the characters love music, but also that the performers love music, so there feels like there is no artifice, no overlay of technique or imposition of style. Once is a musical for people who don’t like musicals.

AP Photos
AP Photos

What it also is, is a movie for anyone who has ever had one of those ‘what if?’ relationships, for anyone who has ever been in love and that is what gives it that magic. It helps, I’m sure, that Hansard and Irglova were falling in love while making the movie as they have a comfortable, easy chemistry that is quiet but intense. There is a moment when the Guy asks Irglova’s character if she loves her husband and she replies in unsubtitled Czech, ‘No, I love you’, when it was shot, Hansard didn’t know what she had said and neither do we. This uncertainty, this lack of a conventional happy ending makes Once depressing, yet oddly uplifting. It may not have a happy ending, but it has the right ending. It’s one of those films that you watch, hoping it doesn’t take a wrong turn and it doesn’t disappoint.

Once, The Musical, onstage at the New York Theater
Once, The Musical, onstage at the New York Theater

After winning the Best Foreign Film at Sundance, ‘Once’ opened in the US to rave reviews, with the Village Voice calling it ‘one of the greatest musicals of the modern age’ and Steven Spielberg publically backing it saying, ‘A little movie called Once gave me enough inspiration to last the rest of the year’. The film’s director John Carney was a little more sanguine when he said ‘It’s a nice addition to the world, as opposed to a piece of rubbish’ but even this self-deprecation can’t take away from the fact that Once is supremely lovable because of the human scale and anything flashier would have detracted from what it is – two people, their music and no false notes.

Ireland Month

Cathy746books View All →

I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!

26 Comments Leave a comment

  1. Flippin’ great review of a feckin’ great film. I put off watching this for years and years because I knew it would make me horrifically homesick. I finally sat down to watch it a couple of years ago. I expected to be upset and sentimental at the sight of jolly old Grafton St. and the rest of it (and I was), but I was far more devastated (but in a good way) by the film’s story. An absolutely perfect film. A.O. Scott at The New York Times said something like ‘watching this film will actually make you a better person’ (he was complaing because in the US it was rated R because of the odd ‘fuck’ here and there, and Scott argued that everyone over the age of 12 should watch it. Thank you so much for this review. I was going to have a crack at doing one myself, but I couldn’t top this, and now you’ve made me want to go and watch the film AGAIN!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I actually saw this movie. And, I say ‘actually’, because I find that I never watch movies anymore (even though I love them). There was a time when the kids were younger (and went to bed earlier) that I watched all the good ones that came out, as well as some of the more obscure ones – this movie must have come out around that time. It was a good one. I love the picture of the actors with their awards!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve never seen this but I think I’ve missed a trick here. The ads for the London musical are all over the Tube and I think it’s run with yer man Ronan Keating is coming to an end soon! Will go see it of can get a ticket!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I found the DVD of this movie in a store just after it won the Oscar, so I bought it out of interest. I absolutely LOVED it! It’s so great to read some of the background to the making of the movie here. Thanks for posting this.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Falling Slowly is one of my favourite songs ever! I didn’t know about the back story to the movie though. How interesting (and a bit weird) to think that it could have been Cillian Murphy!

    I recently watched Carney’s latest (?) Begin Again starring Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo. Kinda fun, lovely music. Far bigger budget!


  6. I hadn’t heard of this before! (although the title does sound familiar). This sounds like such a magical film, it’s definitely going on my to see list. The story behind it makes it even more beautiful Thank you for the recommendation!

    Liked by 1 person

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