Friday, November 23, 2007

Review - Once and Garage

You'd really have to have a heart of stone not to fall for Once. John Carney's low-key romance/musical has already struck a chord in America, being one of the year's most unexpected hits, and it's easy to see why so many people have been taken with it. The film benefits from appealing performances, fine music and, most importantly, buckets of heart – elements which make us completely forget the fact that it was put together on a miniscule budget. It is filmmaking stripped down to the basics, to the point where the leading characters don't even have names. Instead we have 'Guy' (Glenn Hansard), a Dubliner in his 30's who works in his father's hoover repair shop, but who spends every spare minute on Grafton Street with his guitar, busking for change in front of mostly uninterested crowds. One person does notice him though, a young Czech immigrant – credited as 'Girl' and played by Markéta Irglová – who is particularly taken by the more passionate tunes which he has written himself, the ones he only plays at night.

She's a musician herself, and after working the streets selling flowers and copies of the Big Issue, she often heads to a local store to tinkle the ivories on one of their many pianos. After listening to the girl playing, he joins her with his guitar and they partake in a duet, but this isn't the usual bursting into song that we find in standard musicals. Instead, we see them slowly putting the tune together piece by piece, gradually finding their balance and harmony; and although Once could hardly be a more different film from Brad Bird's Ratatouille, the two pictures share similar themes - a sense of delight in the act of creation, a shared wonderment in the artistic process. Some of the best scenes in Carney's film allow us to watch as Hansard and Irglová come up with their infuriatingly catchy songs. We see him sitting at his laptop, looking at images of the ex-girlfriend he still pines for while writing lyrics; and in a standout sequence, Carney's camera follows Irglová as she walks the street at night, listening to a piece of music he has written and attempting to find the right words.

As well as watching their musical collaboration, we also see their relationship developing during these scenes. Hansard has an open quality to his face, allowing his emotions to be easily expressed and read, and the way he gazes at this pretty girl leaves us in no doubt about his feelings. Irglová, in complete contrast, is a much more intriguing and enigmatic figure. She has a certain poise, a kind of toughness to her pretty features, and her situation is complicated by the young daughter she lives with and the husband who has remained in her native country. Between them Hansard and Irglová have just one prior acting credit to their names (his appearance as Outspan in 1991's The Commitments), and their performances have their limitations, but they also have real chemistry, the kind of onscreen magic you wish you could capture in a bottle.

Despite that tangible spark, though, the most pleasing aspect of Once is the manner in which Carney takes this couple down a more unexpected route than you might expect, letting the relationship simmer constantly without ever bringing it to the boil. He gives the actors plenty of chances to play out scenes of real intimacy, but he lets the plot develop in a down-to-earth, authentic manner, which is more all the more affecting for its refusal to settle for pat conclusions. Sure, Once isn't without its unconvincing moments or its occasional cheesiness (a sceptical producer's "Hey, these guys can really play!" reaction sticks out in this regard), but moments like that are the exception rather than the rule, and the big-heartedness of the film's finale is irresistible. Once left me feeling uplifted and satisfied, it left me with a smile on my face and a song in my heart; and whether it is made with millions of dollars or scraped together on a shoestring budget, isn't that what a great musical is meant to do?
From a thriving, cosmopolitan city to a small village in rural Ireland; from an uplifting story about a young couple who express themselves through music, to a darkly unsettling tale of a single man who can barely express himself at all. Garage is not a film which will raise your spirits in the manner of Once, but it will leave you with food for thought, and it marks an intriguing progression for another young Irish filmmaker. Lenny Abrahamson made his feature debut in 2004 with the brilliant black comedy Adam and Paul, following a day in the life of two junkies as they try to score on the streets of Dublin. It was a funny film, with two superb central performances, but it was also shot through with a biting sense of pain, and it climaxed on a note of genuine, unexpected pathos.

Just as they did with Adam and Paul, Abrahamson and his regular screenwriter Mark O'Halloran drop us into Garage without giving us a great deal of information. We aren't provided with any backstory for the film's central character Josie (played by Irish comedian Pat Shortt), but as soon as he appears on screen we start to get a sense of who he is. Josie is a simple, well-meaning character who has lived in this area all of his life. He works as the caretaker of a tiny, rundown garage – probably the only place he has ever worked – and he goes about his menial tasks with quiet diligence. Everyone else in the town seems to be well aware that his good nature is being exploited by the garage's owner, who comes around only to collect the takings, and at the start of the film Mr Gallagher (John Keogh) suggests that they should remain open later on weekends, a suggestion Josie readily agrees with. This is big news in Josie's life, but when he mentions it at the local pub later that evening he is met with mocking laughter ("I think they mentioned something about it on Sky News", one regular remarks). Josie chuckles along as he finishes his pint, but his forced laughter can't hide his loneliness or hurt as he is once again cast as the village idiot.

In moments such as this, Shortt reveals extra dimensions to Josie's character, showing him to be a man who has feelings, but who simply has no idea how to articulate them. In one lovely scene, he sits by the lake with an old man (Tom Hickey) who tries to tell him about the terrible pain his poor health has been causing him, but an uncomfortable Josie can only react by trying to move the conversation along with banal pleasantries. If you recognise Pat Shortt at all it will probably be from his part as one half of comedy duo D'Unbelievables, or as the star of Kilinaskully, and those who do know his work will be stunned by his revelatory performance here. His depiction of Josie is a million miles from the broad, caricature-based comedy he is renowned for, as he sinks deep into the character to create a carefully detailed portrait of an emotionally stunted man. Josie's day consists of standard rituals from which he never deviates, and he has no knowledge of the world outside of his own community (he views a long-haul truck driver from northern England as a somewhat exotic figure). He is an innocent in this world, and we fear for him.

Soon, though, he finds a friend, when 15 year-old David (Conor Ryan) is hired to work alongside Josie in a part-time capacity. Josie enjoys the company, and he tries to bond with the lad by offering him a can of beer after the working day is done. Later, Josie brings cans for all of David's teenage friends, and we can sense a change in his demeanour as he is tentatively accepted into this new social group. But Josie's relationship with David is irrevocably damaged when he crosses another boundary which a 15 year-old boy shouldn't be asked to cross. Josie can't seem to understand the error of his ways, but his actions have terrible consequences.

As these consequences become clear, Garage lets go of the light comic touch on display in its first hour and transforms itself into an unsettling tragedy. Abrahamson is a director who likes to suggest rather than tell, and Garage is an extremely spare and methodical piece of filmmaking which occasionally recalls the work of the Dardennes or Robert Bresson in its approach. The filmmakers have jettisoned anything superfluous from the picture as they follow the story's inexorable logic, and while this leaves a number of supporting characters feeling underdeveloped (Anne-Marie Duff's role, for example), it allows them to maintain a rigid control on the film's gradually darkening atmosphere. The final third plays out with a haunting sense of stillness, and the very last scenes in the picture are quietly chilling.

Once and Garage are films which make the most of their low budgets and tight focus, to draw us into a simple story and to send us out the other side with our emotions stirred. They are both films which portray modern Ireland as it is, not offering a tourist-baiting, postcard vision of the country; they are both films which stay true to the integrity of their narratives, defying audience expectations; and they are both films which address universal themes on an intimate, human scale. They stand as two of the most impressive Irish features for many years and - best of all - both have been made by directors taking the earliest steps in their careers. It will be fascinating to see if John Carney can successfully follow-up on the promise of Once, when the challenge of recapturing that cinematic magic is exacerbated by elevated expectations; but with only two films under his belt, I'm already getting the feeling that Lenny Abrahamson is the real deal.