I was talking about Once via instant messenger with a fellow film fan before the press screening. "It's Irish. Apparently a modern musical. With pop music." The reply came fast: "Wow. That could be horrible or wonderful. There's no middle ground." And, after seeing Once, it turns out that it's a lot closer to wonderful than horrible. That's in no small part thanks to the sheer charm of the film, which is in itself no small part thanks to the charm of the two leads, Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova. Hansard plays a busker and singer-songwriter; Irglova is a Czech émigré who strikes up a friendship with him. They meet one night as he's pouring his heart out into one of his own compositions, and she's struck by it enough to throw money into his guitar case. He's not exactly bowled over by her contribution for his art: "Thanks. Ten Cents. Brilliant."
Writer-director John Carney has a great talent for capturing the way it's often easier to be intimate with strangers than friends, and Hansard and Irlova reach out to each other from their normally quiet lives: He's getting over a broken relationship, she's got a complicated backstory. It's the way that Carney's script and the performances delineate those interactions that elevates Once above the quotidian and the cliché: asked about his great lost love, Hansard recalls the facts of the matter in song, switching from country to blues to heavy metal on the back of a bus.