“The Swell Season” closely follows the further fortunes of Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, the fairy-tale twosome who won an original-song Academy Award for 2007’s hit indie “Once.” Tracking the duo on the nationwide concert tour that followed their Oscar triumph, pic captures how their musical partnership proceeds apace, with hotel-room harmonies and backstage orchestrations, even as their romance begins to fade under the stress of the tour and they find themselves reacting very differently to their sudden celebrity. Shot in sumptuous high-contrast black-and-white, pic will please hardcore “Once” fans but seems unlikely to gain many converts.
As directed by Nick August-Perna, Carlo Mirabella-Davis and Chris Dapkins, “Swell Season” would appear to function best as a glorified DVD extra, a nitty-gritty real-life glimpse of the couple outside of fictional embellishment — except that the shimmering monochrome lensing transforms the most mundane piece of equipment into an objet d’art and lends Hansard and Irglova a star aura. While “Once” was an intimate two-hander, “Swell” chronicles the couple’s entry into a larger social context.
For Hansard, who struggled unrecognized as a street musician for more than 20 years, the audience adulation vindicates everything he has suffered for his art. But to Irglova, barely out of high school when she fell into fame through her love of music and for Hansard, fan idolatry feels unearned and increasingly uncomfortable.
“Swell” never really gathers momentum, remaining a collection of moments, some more privileged than others. Hansard’s colorful mother, with her boundless pride over her son’s Oscar, furnishes one of the pic’s lighter scenes, while his alcoholic father makes an abbreviated cameo just prior to his death, leaving his son to puzzle over unrevealed secrets.
The docu remains extremely low-key, with even the couple’s breakup barely causing a ripple in their affectionate musical collaboration; their songs stay wistfully romantic in tone, even when relating the dissolution of romance.
The filmmakers wax equally lyrical in their concert coverage, which captures Irglova in low angle, framed against black as she croons a solo ballad at the piano or slips wraithlike into the spotlight to join Hansard in song. Hansard himself is bathed in a halo of stage lights, his voice crescendoing as he guns his guitar, or else filmed from behind facing waves of applause from Radio City Music Hall auds. The helmers also have Glen essay a couple of plaintive ditties in wandering-minstrel mode, posing him against a picturesque crumbling Irish castle.
But perhaps the pic’s most evocative, oddly showstopping moment occurs as Hansard and Irglova, along with their backup band, gather around a bar table and launch into an a cappella round-robin of folk ballads; the stars, their fiddlers and guitarists — and even their business manager — suddenly finding themselves on equal footing in the raw musicality of the moment.