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Review: Imperfect Yet Understated & Tender 'Swell Season' Digs Under The Skin Of 'Once' Co-Stars

The Playlist By Mark Zhuravsky | The Playlist October 6, 2011 at 7:37AM

“Once” was the little movie that could get you out of a rut, provided the mind and heart remained open to the maudlin yet unstrained love that sprung up between a guitar player and a flower seller of few words. Much of the film’s success can be justifiably attributed to the immense charm of the two leads, Irishman Glen Hansard and the Czech-born Markéta Irglová, whose effortless musicality and chemistry lent the film a lived-in feel that bigger budgeted studio fare would kill for. The film was a surprising success that culminated in an emotional Oscar win for its leads and their song “Falling Slowly,” recorded by the duo as The Swell Season.
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Once” was the little movie that could get you out of a rut, provided the mind and heart remained open to the maudlin yet unstrained love that sprung up between a guitar player and a flower seller of few words. Much of the film’s success can be justifiably attributed to the immense charm of the two leads, Irishman Glen Hansard and the Czech-born Markéta Irglová, whose effortless musicality and chemistry lent the film a lived-in feel that bigger budgeted studio fare would kill for. The film was a surprising success that culminated in an emotional Oscar win for its leads and their song “Falling Slowly,” recorded by the duo as The Swell Season.

Bearing the same title as the musical collaboration of its two leads, “The Swell Season” documentary boasts three directors (Nick August-Perna, Chris Dapkins, and Carlo Mirabella-Davis), with Dapkins pulling double duty as DP, lensing the understated doc in calming, frequently beautiful black and white. “Swell Season” follows Hansard and Irglová, coasting on vapors after their Oscar success while preparing to undertake a major two-year tour that would take them all over the world – and test the bonds of two lovers. The unfettered access offered to the directors is both a blessing and a curse, imbuing the documentary with emotional immediacy but robbing it of a distancing that may have helped put it all in perspective. The viewer is left feeling like they’ve experienced some of what Hansard and Irglová went through, but are hardly closer to understanding how they got there in the first place.


A major move in the right direction that the doc makes early on is affording Glen Hansard significant time with his family, consisting here of an immensely proud mother and hulking former boxer dad. Hansard’s moments with his family are honest and tender, almost crucial to understanding how and why Hansard makes music – certainly he does so because it’s his calling, but the background helps sketch out a young man, bad at school, given a chance to go out and busk to his heart’s content. It’s fitting that we have this private time with Hansard, whose forward, vulnerable demeanor (helped by an expressive set of eyes and a kind face that contorts with effort when he sings) goes well with the all-access camerawork.

The same cannot be said for Markéta Irglová, who, while considerably more outspoken than her “Once” counterpart, is very much reserved and given to suppressing outright emotionality. We are never granted time with Irglová’s family, which hurts the doc since we are not quite sure where she’s coming from – again, not a necessary detail but a strongly suggested one, as a Czech girl wielding Irish-accented English is certainly a unique occurrence and one that begs for an examination. How does her family feel about the celebrity status achieved by the young woman? Or about the fact that she sings in English? Or about Hansard, her partner at the time? We never do get the privilege to learn more about Irglová outside of what we are shown of her, and for some that will diminish the effect of the film.

Only on stage, when her voice soars and tells stories of love and loss, does Irglová seem to be largely content – the tour is not her cup of tea and sudden celebrity is stifling. She feels extremely uncomfortable taking photos, and in one curious scene talks it out with the backup band, expressing the conflict between disappointing her fans and overexposing herself. The old problem of professional fakery rears its head, with Irglová pondering how she can remain genuine in the face of all this attention. When Hansard, present throughout this debate, suddenly walks out, we are witnessing probably not the first, but a notable blow to their relationship. A key scene at a café cements the withering attraction and effectively bookends the film – filled with moments of silence, and long looks, it builds a past that the film never touches upon.

“Swell Season” features a healthy amount of the band’s performance, moving music sung with care – much like “Once,” it’s liable to bring tears to your eyes to see the two croon their hearts out while strumming a guitar gently or playing a piano. Even as their relationship erodes, the two perform professionally well, united by their desire to do right by their audiences and their clear love for their material. “Swell Season” excels at showing us the band on the road and two people whose love for each other is replaced in time with great care and devotion without intimacy. It’s gripping without trying too hard to be so, and if there is one complaint to be leveled against the doc it's that it doesn’t do much beyond giving us an inside look, but maybe that’s enough for now. Time will tell how the “Swell Season” passes. [B]

The film opens this Friday in Los Angeles at the Downtown Independent and will hit more cities in the coming weeks. Check the website for details.

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