By Ann Hornaday
Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2011
Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova burst into public consciousness in 2006, with the beguiling Irish musical "Once." When they won an Oscar for their song "Falling Slowly," they charmed the tuxedoes off the assembled Academy members - and the telecast's global audience - with their humble, heartfelt, utterly winning acceptance speeches. The life-imitates-art charm was only amplified when it turned out they were a couple off screen as well.
"The Swell Season," a documentary that is every bit as intimate and disarming as the movie that made them famous, chronicles the couple's post-Oscar life, as their band embarks on a frenetic world tour and Hansard and Irglova's real-life romance begins to unravel. Hansard, a grizzled veteran who's been busking on street corners since he was 13, moves easily into the life he'd always dreamed of, whereas Irglova - 18 years his junior, whose shy demeanor belies a fiercely assured presence onstage - bridles uneasily at the demands of newfound celebrity.
Using black-and-white cinematography to heighten the story's lyricism, directors Nick August-Perna, Chris Dapkins and Carlo Mirabella-Davis capture the gathering psychodrama with fly-on-the-wall discretion, interspersing Hansard and Irglova's intimacies and increasingly tense conversations with lovely performances of "Once" hits and material by their band (also called the Swell Season). The film includes alternately discomfiting and endearing encounters between Hansard and his alcoholic father and his mother, whose pride in her son is counterbalanced by Hansard's own ambivalence at the acclaim. (And it contains some "Once"-worthy scenes of its own, such as a late-night a cappella jam session wherein the band members join a lovely sing-off of folk ballads.)
Most vividly, "The Swell Season" captures the insistent, borderline-disturbing energy of fandom at its most rabid and psychically intrusive. Everywhere Hansard and Irglova go, they're besieged by well-meaning strangers who want an autograph, a picture, a moment, a word. It's exhausting, and it's understandable when the tiny Irglova begins to wobble under the strain.
But it's just as easy to understand that this is what Hansard has struggled and sacrificed his whole life to attain - a reality that "The Swell Season" acknowledges in its affecting final scene at Radio City Music Hall. As difficult as it is to believe that two people can harmonize so well onstage but not off, "The Swell Season" makes a convincing case that endings can be just as full of promise as the most seemingly charmed beginnings.