The Swell Season (2011)

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The delightful, tiny film Once thrust musicians Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová into the spotlight when they won an Academy Award for Best Original Song in 2008 for Falling Slowly. The Swell Season is the name of the band they formed and toured around the world as well as this quiet and genuine B&W documentary that follows the ups and downs of their personal and professional relationship in the aftermath of their success.

Hansard left school at 13, urged by an exasperated head teacher to leave school that day and give busking on the streets of Dublin a go for a year; the door would always be open for him if he failed. He instead discovered a passion for music that has never left him and saw him start his band, The Frames, at age 20. Hansard met Irglová when The Frames were booked by her father to play at a music festival in the Czech Republic. She was 13, he 31, and their friendship and musical collaboration continued until they starred in and wrote the music for Once. On the promotional tour for the film, they fell in love, and it is this relationship we see fracturing in The Swell Season.

Like Once, not a lot happens in this film, but it is poetically beautiful and a gentle exploration of the pressures of success. We watch the transcendent musical connection that Hansard and Irglová have, their music interweaving effortlessly, their voices and instruments harmonising. We see that for Hansard, this is an unexpected turning in his twenty-year music career. He is used to the struggle to be heard and seems dogged in his single-minded love of music. What he is not used to are the restrictions and expectations that come with sudden, mainstream success and he seems unable to extricate himself from a pervading sense of panic.

Irglová, on the other hand, is barely 19, and for her everything is new. The only woman on the tour and the youngest, it is understandable that she has quietly slotted in to the pervading dynamic of the group, set mainly by Hansard. It is as she gains confidence and starts to question what her own values and preferences are that the cracks begin to form. It’s a neat metaphor for falling in love; at first all you see are your commonalities and it is only with time that your differences become apparent, sometimes growing to such significance that you wonder if you are still the same people.

The black and white cinematography is beautiful, giving a dislocating sense that you could be anywhere in the world. The camera is close in, creating a sense of intimacy and showing always the performer’s, not the audience’s point of view. The music is the heart of the film, though, particularly where we see people performing deep in the moment; the Irish songs sung a capella, the ferocity and passion of Hansard’s voice; Irglová solo on the piano. Time for another viewing of Once.

Available on Stan

Bechdel test – fail
4 stars

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