Fairy tale, reality mesh in edgy, enchanting ‘Ondine’
Irish filmmaker Neil Jordan has a masterful way with a fairy tale. His elegant The Company of Wolves, based on the fractured fairy tales of Angela Carter, was his most overt take on the genre, with its storybook costumes and deep forest setting. But there’s a whiff of candlelight and moonbeams, mythos and romance, in his best contemporary dramas as well, particularly those with an Irish setting like The Crying Game or Breakfast On Pluto.
Jordan turns to the myth-haunted seacoast of Ireland for his new film, Ondine, a beautifully-wrought, deeply seductive tale told with wry humor and heart. It’s Jordan’s riff on the popular legend of the lonely fisherman and his captive mer-bride. But while the title is taken from a 19th Century German version of the tale, Jordan throws out the old plot, reimagines the story with a beguiling modern edge, and makes it his own.
In the chilly waters of a tiny seacoast village in County Cork, a fisherman named Syracuse (Colin Farrell) plies his meager trade in an old rustbucket trawler. In a brisk, slightly delirious opening sequence, he hauls up his net one day to find a woman inside, apparently drowned (Alicja Bachleda). He starts to radio for help, but when he realizes she’s still alive, he resuscitates her on the spot. She doesn’t remember anything, including her name, but calls herself Ondine after the legend. She thinks she’s dead, he thinks she might be an “asylum-seeker,” and when she refuses to go to hospital or let anyone else see her, he stashes her in a secluded cottage that once belonged to his deceased mother, “a loner and a gypsy.”
Syracuse, too, is something of an outcast. A recovering alcoholic (precariously sober for two-plus years), he’s acrimoniously divorced and trying to get a grip on his life for the daughter he adores, Annie (the irresistible Alison Barry), who still lives with her hard-drinking Mam and her new Scottish boyfriend. Alison is in a wheelchair; her kidneys are failing and she spends hours every week on a dialysis machine. But she’s smart, fearless, and spirited; when her Da tells her a “story” about a fisherman who pulls a woman from the sea, she does the research and tries to convince Syracuse that he’s netted a Selkie, a seal woman who assumes human shape when her sealskin is buried—but one day must return the sea.
Her arguments are convincing. Ondine swims like the proverbial fish. On board Syracuse’s trawler, she sings a haunting song in an unknown language, and lobsters and salmon pile into Syracuse’s net. It’s love at first sight when little Alison meets Ondine and helps her bury something mysterious plucked out of a kelp bed, while Ondine is drawn to good-heated, self-effacing Syracuse. But just as Alison warns that, in the folklore, the Selkie’s seal husband will come looking for her, a sinister stranger shows up in town, lurking in the dockside shadows.
Jordan effortlessly creates tension in the juxtaposition of these fantastical elements with gritty, day-to-day reality. Zipping around the village in her motorized chair, Alison could be in peril at any moment, from other taunting kids on bikes, to fast cars, to the vague hint of potential menace whenever she’s at home alone with her current step-dad. But these moments are well-balanced by the droll repartee between Syracuse and the village priest (the marvelous Stephen Rea) in the confessional. The fisherman needs someone to unburden his secrets to who won’t turn them into village gossip, and while the priest has given up ever expecting to see Syracuse in church (“You wouldn’t be after saying a couple of ‘Hail Marys’ on the way out, would ye?” he sighs), the stoic sounding-board he provides makes him the closest thing to a best friend Syracuse has.
Farrell, a capable, if sometimes maligned actor who can be as good as his material, gets the chance to be wonderful here. His Syracuse is soulful, romantic, funny, intensely fallible, and self-possessed in a way that only comes from facing up to one’s demons. Bachleda (a Polish singer and actress) is perfectly cast as the exotic, yet unworldly-seeming Ondine. Poetic, and suspenseful, Ondine enchants.
With Colin Farrell, Alicja Bachleda, Alison Barry, and Stephen Rea. Written and directed by Neil Jordan. A Magnolia release. Rated PG-13. 111 minutes. Watch film trailer >>>