14 July 2014


Sometimes, it's fun being a little behind the curve on watching critical darlings. If there's some acclaimed film that I've missed in the past few years, there's no weight of expectation on the next film from the same director, if that happens to be the first one that I see. In this case, Begin Again immediately made me want to check out Once, so there's that to look forward to as well.

John Carney's second musical drama is evidently slightly bigger, transplanted from Dublin to New York. Originally titled Can A Song Save Your Life?, the film opens with a ramshackle open mic performance by Greta, a British singer-songwriter, which is witnessed by Dan, a drunk and depressed music producer. After backtracking and showing how the two of them happened across one another that evening, they find common catharsis for their traumatic experiences with the music industry by recording an album in locations around the city.

Viewed without any real expectation at all, this may be one of the year's most unexpected delights. From the premise alone, it wouldn't be much of a stretch to anticipate something much more twee or trite than Carney has produced. It's not a film that's entirely without cynicism, in its pointed jabs at manufactured pop and the unconscionable economics of record companies. It manages to make these references without coming across as either a polemic or some sickly, sunny daydream and that's chiefly down to the strength of the characters.

Most films get an automatic uplift from the inherent likeability of Mark Ruffalo, but Carney hardly leans on that by casting him as an alcoholic who has recently suffered a nervous breakdown. Elsewhere, Keira Knightley continues to invert the Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype as she did in Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World, with her Greta consistently taking control of her own role in the project, rather than simply giving a boost to the morose male lead. Even better, their relationship isn't played romantically at all.

When Greta and Dan bond over a shared love of music, (literally represented by a night-time tour of the guilty pleasures on their MP3 players and a shared headphone jack) it's not like they're making eyes at each other. Both have come out of messy relationships- Dan alienated his wife during his breakdown and Greta lost a long-term boyfriend to the glitz and homogeny of pop stardom- and neither is looking for a cross-generational rebound. It's slightly reminiscent of the central relationship in Lost In Translation, but without even that small amount of sexual tension. It's about two unlikely collaborators becoming best mates.

The strength of that platonic chemistry and the will for each of these characters to succeed carries us through a lot of the film. The first scene in which the pair's peculiar troupe record in public is so engaging, I caught myself feeling on edge about whether or not they'd be successful, almost willing to shush incidental characters for walking through their open-air session. But honestly, the film hooked me from earlier than that- it's on the second run at the opening song, where a drunken Dan orchestrates the instrumental backing to the acoustic track in his mind, visually represented by Carney in a Bedknobs & Broomsticks-style locomotion of unattended drumsticks and violin bows behind Greta.

The film is full of quietly ecstatic moments like this. It's not a big showy number- the original songs aren't hugely catchy and they sometimes have that homespun Sex Bob-omb flavour of "I don't know whether this song is actually good or not." It passes off some unusual casting choices in this way too. James Corden is at his most naturalistic as another platonic mate of Greta's and Maroon 5's Adam Levine makes an understated acting debut as her well-meaning douchebag ex. Catherine Keener and Hailee Steinfeld look more at home in this kind of feature, but they both get their chance to shine as Dan's estranged wife and daughter too.

For all of its modest scale, Begin Again is a massively endearing film that effortlessly put a smile on my face. Ruffalo and Knightley are terrific together and despite Carney having access to a bigger toybox of stars and locations, he has ensured that the "fuck it, let's just do it ourselves" ethos embodied by the characters is well served. The climax of the film takes place concurrently with the end credits, which does seem a little jarring at first, but it's as good a way as any to end a film that places such importance in people coming together to express themselves.

Begin Again is now showing in cinemas nationwide.
If you've seen Begin Again, why not leave a comment below? Perhaps there will never again be a film in which "James Corden plays the British best friend" is such a tolerable thought.

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

1 comment:

Tim Day said...

I really enjoyed this as well. A fine film that does seem to channel some of ONCE to lesser degrees, but Ruffalo flat out makes this work.