REVIEW: Begin Again, much like writer/director John Carney's 2007 effort Once, is going to polarise audiences.
The grumps and the cynics - those people who like to describe themselves as "realists"; the ones you don't want to get stuck next to at a dinner party - will say it's a sappy load of old hoo-hah which only goes to prove that Carney is fatally afflicted with dewy-eyed romanticism, and that his leading lady Keira Knightley has the acting chops and the intellectual gravitas of a concussed rabbit.
But then there are those - and I like to include myself in this second group - of a sunnier disposition, who will see in Begin Again a simple, sweet natured, and altogether agreeable romantic musical drama. Light as a feather it may be, and relentlessly optimistic about the human animal, but Begin Again never quite strays into pure hokum, and not once does it fail to be a well made, economically written, and charmingly performed film.
Knightley plays a young English singer/songwriter stranded in New York. Her boyfriend has vaulted from making demo tapes in his flat, to genuine pop-superstardom in a dizzying few months, and the relationship has crumbled around them. Heartbroken and furious, Knightley spends her last night in the city at an open mic night, is convinced by a friend to perform one of her own tunes, and is spotted by Mark Ruffalo's charmingly rumpled and utterly sozzled ex-record label owner.
From here on, a not-quite-romance breaks out, as Knightley and Ruffalo collaborate on the business of recording an album, getting to know characters played by Mos Def, Catherine Keener, and Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit), and healing each other a little of what hurts them.
I liked that Begin Again never became the film the trailer threatens, that a couple of the most important moments were wordless (it takes talent to know what not to write), that it finally gave Knightley a role that she is right for, and that by the end everybody was allowed some resolution.
Begin Again is a deceptive film, with some fine tuned storytelling machinery purring away beneath its facade of naivety. There's a couple of perfectly hummable tunes, good performances right across the cast, and a nicely ramshackle and independent air that suits the story well.
Begin Again (M), 104 mins, directed by John Carney