VOD film review: Begin Again
Ruffalo and Knightley8
Mark Harrison | On 14, Nov 2014Reading time: 3 mins
Director: John Carney
Cast: Mark Ruffalo, Keira Knightley, Hailee Steinfeld, James Corden
Watch Begin Again online in the UK: TalkTalk TV / iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Google Play
Perhaps having decided that “Can A Song Save Your Life?” was more tagline than title, writer-director John Carney renamed his follow-up to Once Begin Again, which has a little more meaning. Most obviously, it refers to what the two lead characters do in the aftermath of fraught personal situations, but it also refers to the film’s canny knack for redoing the build-up to a pivotal moment from their respective points of view.
It opens with a halting performance of that once-titular song, with British singer-songwriter Greta (Keira Knightley) doing a ramshackle acoustic spot at an open mic night. This is witnessed by Dan (Mark Ruffalo), a drunk and depressed music producer, and we backtrack – firstly, to show how he got there and, secondly, to show her own journey to that pokey music bar.
Once we’re all caught up with the present, the two of them begin an unlikely collaboration in search of common catharsis for their traumatic experiences. To this end, they start recording an album in locations around New York City, improvising as best they can with what they have.
The result is neither as trite nor as predictable as you may expect from that short synopsis. Dan and Greta aren’t about to hook up; they’re both wounded and looking for support, but they’re not merely making eyes at each other and their relationship feels essentially platonic.
Most films featuring Ruffalo get an uplift just for sheer likeability, but even if Dan is sympathetic, it’s tough to say he’s immediately likeable. Having suffered a breakdown over his failing record company and alienated his wife (Catherine Keener) and daughter (Hailee Steinfeld), he’s in a dark place.
Subverting the Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype as she did in Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, Knightley’s Greta is also coming up out of a tough split with her well-meaning but douchey ex boyfriend (Maroon 5’s Adam Levine in an understated acting début) and she has an arc outside of merely being discovered by Dan. James Corden has a similarly platonic supporting role in there too, and he’s perfectly charming whenever he appears.
There are some pointed jabs at the sameyness of manufactured pop throughout, but Carney’s deft hand keeps it from tipping into either a bitter polemic or a saccharine daydream. It’s never cynical and even the more obvious scenes – such as a nighttime exchange of musical guilty pleasures, with Dan and Greta sharing a headphone jack as they traverse the city – still raise a smile. The original songs themselves aren’t hugely catchy, but with that in mind, the amount of emotional investment you have in the project is actually all the more impressive.
But to follow the film’s example and go back to the beginning of the review, the hook comes in that second run at the opening song, which takes place from Dan’s perspective. You get a sense that his drunkenness helps, but in contrast to the sparse performance we’ve seen, he orchestrates a backing track in his mind, visually represented by a Bedknobs & Broomsticks-style locomotion of unattended drumsticks and violin bows behind the singer.
The film is full of quietly ecstatic moments like this, which perfectly set the timbre. At the end, the decision to run the credits concurrently with the closing scene feels jarring, until you realise that it’s the perfect way to end a hugely endearing film about people coming together to express themselves creatively.
Begin Again is not a big, showy number, but it effortlessly brings a smile to your face. Even though Carney has access to a much bigger toy box of stars and locations than he did on Once, the indie ethos is still in every frame.