A couple, and a film, perfectly in tune

This simple story of a Guy and a Girl and their music is very appealing.

Posted: June 02, 2007

Once, a low-key delight set on the sidewalks of Dublin, is about a busker and a flower-seller who meet on Grafton Street and connect through his plaintive ballads.

He is a Dublin folk-rocker, she a Prague pianist, classically trained, who borrows the Steinway in a music shop to demonstrate her skills to him. Their courtship is physically chaste, musically passionate and deeply satisfying.

In this handmade version of the studio-manufactured tunefest Music and Lyrics, the Guy (Glen Hansard, scruffy lead singer of the Frames) and the Girl (milkmaid-fresh Markéta Irglová) are random atoms that bump and produce a rare creative energy.

Told with the simplicity of a Chaplin film (more than once I was reminded of City Lights), Once has the tentative and unpredictable amble of a chance encounter rather than the absolute and overdetermined structure of a Hollywood film. In this case, Girl meets Guy, and Girl and Guy make beautiful music - literally - together and apart.

More than the music, the performances supply the charm of the unassuming film written and directed by John Carney. In a movie season of big bangs and gigantism, this acoustic bit of counterprogramming offers quiet characters at human scale.

We don't know much about either when, at the music store with the Girl at the keyboard, the Guy improvises the lyric, "I don't know you. But I want you / All the more for that."

Like lightning in a bottle, this little scene in this little movie holds universal yearning and anticipation. It is the lover's prayer; it is the filmgoer's appeal.

As it crisscrosses Dublin from the modest vacuum-cleaner repair shop where the Guy works alongside his father to the flat the Girl shares with her mother, Once shares its sense of discovery of the city and these shaggy citizens. In a lovely sequence, the Girl, in slippers and bathrobe, goes to the convenience store to get batteries, and you hear the rhythms of the street become the rhythm of her songs.

Only after the film takes leave of the Guy and the Girl do you realize they have communicated almost exclusively through lyrics and song. It's a movie musical as pure as any opera.

Once *** (out of four stars)

Written and directed by John Carney, photography by Tim Fleming, music by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, distributed by Fox Searchlight.

Running time: 1 hour, 28 mins.

The Guy. . . Glen Hansard

The Girl. . . Markéta Irglová

Guy's Dad. . . Bill Hodnett

Girl's Mother. . . Danuse Ktrestova

Parent's guide: R (profanity)

Showing at: Ritz Five

Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or crickey@phillynews.com. Read her blog, Flickgrrl, at http://go/philly.com/flickgrrl/.

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