Review: Ondine is an Exquisite Irish Fairy Tale From the Sea
by Jeremy Kirk
June 4, 2010
Once upon a time, there was a fisherman, and he caught a woman in his nets, and it was a good day.
And, so, begins Ondine, Neil Jordan's lyrical and beautiful fairy tale-esque story about such a fisherman, played here by Colin Farrell, and the turn of events that changes his life and that of his family forever. Deeply enchanting yet oddly grounded, the film tells a story of love, the power of belief in something, whatever that may be, and the shattering that can take place when that faith is taken away from you.
It begins early. Before even a word of dialogue is spoken, the Irish fisherman at the heart of the story (his name is Syracuse, but everyone in the small, fishing community where he lives calls him Circus for his clown-ish behavior) finds the unconscious Ondine, played by Alicja Bachleda, in his fishing net. He brings her on board, she awakens, and the two instantly have a connection. Ondine is frightful of the world. She forces Syracuse not to tell anyone about her, but it isn't long before his daughter, Annie, played by Alison Barry, discovers the mysterious, new girl in his life. Annie believes Ondine to be a Selkie, a mythological, sea creature who can shed her seal-like coat and live with the humans for seven years. As her relationship with Syracuse and Annie builds, though, the past she had left in the sea begins to force its way back into her life.
Jordan has always been a director who moves his films at an even, determined pace, never forcing the action or worrying whether or not his audience is becoming too staled. His screenplay builds the characters within the film immensely, giving us a grand sense of who these people are. Syracuse is a recovering alcoholic. His divorced wife, who Annie lives with, continues her own alcoholism. Syracuse often visits a local, Catholic priest, played by Stephen Rea, to give his "confession", which is more of a glorified, A.A. visit, since there is no chapter of A.A. in the town where they live. Annie herself is dying of kidney failure, she is forced to travel long distances in a wheel-chair, and she, like Syracuse, is looking for something more in her life, something Ondine's presence brings to her.
Everyone's performance, from the incredibly cool yet wholly engaging Farrell to the sweet yet dominating performance from Barry, is top-notch. Bachleda, though, is the star of the film. She carries the tone of it, and there is an absorbing tonal shift her performance seems to have with the rest of the film, almost as if it is her role driving how the film feels. A lot of this is Jordan and cinematographer Christopher Doyle working their own brand of magic, though.
Jordan's usage of pace in Ondine is no exception from his previous films, but the film's fairy tale sense and the exquisite gray-green Doyle brings to the tone both play a part in enrapturing your attention. This is, truly, a fairy tale story, but make no bones about it, it is an Irish fairy tale, one that doesn't always turn out quite the way you might expect. It constantly questions the audience as to what they believe is going on. Is Ondine truly a magical creature who can provide masses of fish and lobster to Syracuse simply by singing a song to the sea? The film rides the edge of ambiguity for a long stretch. The reality of who Ondine is and what her past is about hides itself from us and from Syracuse and Annie until there is no other choice but to reveal itself.
There is a dark force tracking Ondine throughout the film. Jordan constantly reminds us of this by periodically cutting back to Emil Hostina as Vladic as the man seeking her out. When we are first introduced to him, he is eating food off of a switchblade knife, so we know he must be evil. The only setbacks Ondine has lie in Hostina's presence. While the reality of what is going on is not fully established until late in the story, it is still fairly predictable where it is all heading. The less cynical of us hope for one thing, almost pray for it, but Jordan isn't interested in that. A little more ambiguity throughout the third act and the leaving of belief on the table would have done the film wonders.
Nonetheless, Ondine still succeeds in moving you, bubbling up your own sense of faith in something to the surface. Even if that faith is not requited, we are still left with a ravishing work of fiction. The more hopeful of us can even spin the outcome any way we want, a by-product of the ambiguity Jordan builds throughout the first half of the film. And, in the end, isn't that what all great fairy tales are about, the things we take away from the table? With Ondine, the fairy tale at hand may be told and over, but the meanings continue to flow from the sea, always waiting for the next one of us to catch them in our own nets.
Jeremy's Rating: 8 out of 10