Since Ondine is a whole new kind of fish-out-of-water story, Kimberly Gadette leaps at the chance to ask: is Neil Jordan's enchanted drama a flop? Or does it make quite the splash?
Sometimes we make our own luck. Case in point: because of the Writers Guild of America strike that began at the end of 2007, and because Neil Jordan's studio movie had been put on hold, the filmmaker was free to travel back home to Ireland and write something new. Some might have bemoaned their unemployed state ... but like the old saying about the half-empty/half-full glass, Jordan had the right perspective. In this case, instead of a glass, he envisioned a fishing net, half full of a mysterious girl. Looking at Jordan's resultant Ondine in the same way, the major portion of the film is magical.
The film is most enchanting in the first half, in which the struggles of a down-on-his-luck fisherman (Colin Farrell's Syracuse) are contrasted with a radiant young woman (Polish actress Alicja Bachleda) who possess the unusual talent of luring fish directly into Syracuse's net by singing to them. When he asks her name, she says "You can call me Ondine." If she's that evasive about her name, the fisherman knows there's some troubled waters lying ahead.
It turns out the two-years-seven-months sober Syracuse (cruelly nicknamed "Circus" because he would act like a clown when soused) has been having quite a tough time in and out of the choppy grey-green seas that lap the coast of a small fishing town in South West Ireland. His 10-year-old daughter Annie (Alison Barry) is afflicted with kidney failure, his ex-wife is a nasty alcoholic and the storage hold of his fishing boat isn't exactly flush with fish. But along comes this mysterious beauty, who insists on hiding from everyone except Syracuse and the ever-curious Annie. The child immediately does some research at the local library and decides that Ondine is a "selkie," an Irish/Gaelic mythological creature who can transform herself into a human for seven years, as long as she successfully buries her seal coat. But in all probability, Ondine is hiding something much more tangible, much more deceitful than some old pinniped's coat.
Before the story bogs down in overly-melodramatic developments, we float along as if we were passengers on Syracuse's boat, enjoying the superb performances, the effortless melding of the sky and sea enveloping the Beara peninsula, and the slow rocking rhythm that rolls out the love story. In particular, the performances are top-notch. Farrell hasn't been this strong for a long time, his Syracuse changing with the tide or, rather, with the company he keeps. When he's with his daughter, we see his all-embracing paternal love; with the ex-wife, his raging fear of losing his sobriety; with his priest, the self-knowing humor and with Ondine, we watch his gloomy apprehension turn to a tenuous optimism, daring to believe that that for once, just once, he may be the recipient of some long-lasting goodness.
As his daughter, in her debut performance, Alison Barry portrays a whip-smart fearlessness reminiscent of a young Jodie Foster. While Jordan has written her some dialogue that is at times too funny, too consciously precocious, this brand new thespian invests every line with a clear-eyed veracity.
That said, the easy humor between Syracuse and Stephen Rea's priest is utter perfection. We glean that these men have a long history between them, more friends than repentant sinner and pardoner. When Syracuse confesses that he's stolen some ladies' clothes (lingerie for Ondine that he was too embarrassed to buy outright), the priest, misunderstanding, slowly shakes his head, stating in half mocking, half serious tones: "Oh dear, dear, dear, I don't like this at all." We don't often see Rea's wry side, and it's a sheer delight.
Jordon's other discovery is the little known Polish actress Bachleda, who is riveting as the haunted maiden holding life close, as if every day may be her last. Together, she and Farrell share an onscreen chemistry that is electric.
But sadly, the lyrical first half gives way to a trumped-up, muddied drama, replete with a forced rift between the leads and constant shots of a sinister stranger (Emil Hostina) in the background. After the fifth time that the camera briefly focuses on Hostina, without adding any additional information, the ominous undertow gives way to ennui.
But hold tight through this inclement disturbance, because it will indeed pass. Leaving us with clear sailing ... and one fish story worth catching.
Rating on a scale of 5 kettles of you-know-what: 3.5
Release date: US: 4 June 2010 (ltd) to wider release 25 June 2010
UK: previously released
Written and directed by: Neil Jordan
Cast: Colin Farrell, Alicja Bachleda, Alison Barry, Dervla Kirwan, Stephen Rea, Tony Curran, Emil Hostina
Rating: US = PG-13; UK = 12A
Running time: 111 minutes