‘Ondine’: Charmingly transformative

June 2, 2010

Neil Jordan and Colin Farrell have had similar careers, emerging from Ireland to hit it big in independent films, only to succumb to the blandishments and riches of Hollywood – and watch their careers suddenly torpedoed by involvement in weak, unmemorable work.


But both have rediscovered themselves when they return to smaller, more complex work – and such is the case with “Ondine,” their first collaboration. A witty, fanciful and touching film, “Ondine” is part myth, part fairy tale, part wistful romance. It’s quietly surprising in its own lovely way.


Built around the Celtic myth of the selkie – a sea creature that sheds its seal-like appearance to live temporarily on land – “Ondine” is the story of Syracuse (Farrell), a fisherman in a small Irish village who lives alone but makes the most of his time with his daughter from a broken marriage.


As we discover, Syracuse’s nickname is Circus, because he was once a clownish drunk. He sobered up – and it cost him his marriage because his wife refused to stop drinking. He shares custody of his daughter, Annie (Alison Barry), who suffers from kidney disease and requires dialysis on a regular basis while she awaits a kidney for a transplant.


One day, while trawling, his net pulls up a young woman (Alicja Bachleda), who sputters to life with a little CPR. She has no memory of how she got there or her name or where she’s from. And she seems frightened of being seen by anyone other than Syracuse, who takes her to land and installs her in his late mother’s house.


The young woman, whom Syracuse names Ondine after the mythical water nymph, becomes something of a good luck charm for him – especially when she tags along for a day’s fishing. Her singing seems to draw lobsters into his traps and fish into his net – even fish that don’t normally get caught in nets.


Syracuse’s daughter discovers the woman he is hiding and, when she hears her story, becomes convinced that she is, in fact, a selkie. Annie begins studying up on selkie lore and tries to convince Syracuse that he’s involved in something magical.


The explanation is both more and less complex than it seems but the fun of this film is to watch the guarded, haunted Syracuse as he slowly gives in to what seem to be supernatural doings, despite his pragmatic nature. Ondine represents a new start, an entrance into a world Syracuse thought was unavailable to him.


Jordan keeps things light, even as he deals with darker material: the drinking in Syracuse’s past, the foreshortened future his daughter faces, the possibility that this woman, for whom he develops a growing affection, might actually be a selkie.


This is the Colin Farrell of “In Bruges,” “Ask the Dust” and “A Home at the End of the World” (as opposed to “SWAT,” “Miami Vice” and “Alexander”). In the same way, this is the Neil Jordan of “Mona Lisa” and “The Crying Game,” as opposed to the one who made “In Dreams,” “We’re No Angels” or “Interview with the Vampire.” Yes, sentencing them to a life of low-budget movies seems cruel and unusual – but they should both stay far away from big-budget Hollywood dreck.


Bachleda has just the right airy, unfettered quality to make you believe that, in fact, this young woman might be a supernatural being. Barry has an easy way with childhood smart-aleck lines, but also a gravity that befits the character. And Stephen Rea, something of a Jordan mascot, turns up in a small but funny role as the local priest, to whom Syracuse confesses as though he’s at an A.A. meeting.


“Ondine” is a charmer, a film that pulls you into an alternate world and makes you feel the possibilities. It’s a subtle, dreamy change of pace from the over-amped CG/3D behemoths currently filling theaters.


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