Off the blue, wind-battered coast of Ireland, a simple but rugged fisherman named Syracuse (Colin Farrell), who makes a modest living trawling for fish, hauls in his catch with a girl inside the net-nestled among the haddock-who may or not be a mermaid. This is Ireland, replete with myths and superstitions and God-fearing rituals of massive Catholic mind control, and Ondine embraces so much blarney you wonder how they managed to leave out the shamrocks and leprechauns. It’s the latest moody, somber tale with magical, spiritual undertones from Neil (The Crying Game) Jordan, and I doubt if it has much commercial appeal, but even with its flaws, it could be fresh and offbeat enough to please discerning art-house audiences who ask for more with their Irish breakfast tea than a water biscuit.
Ondine embraces so much blarney you wonder how they managed to leave out the shamrocks and leprechauns.
Strange, mysterious and gasping for air, the girl from the sea has turned blue enough for the morgue. But when Syracuse administers some crude first aid, she comes to life babbling in an incoherent English that sounds like a gothic language invented by Druids. Refusing to go to a hospital, the sea creature who calls herself Ondine is taken by Syracuse to an isolated cottage on the sea that once belonged to his late, beloved mother. Soon the lonely, world-weary Syracuse, an irresponsible reformed alcoholic, and his 10-year-old daughter, Annie (Alison Barry), who is confined to a wheelchair with kidney failure, find that Ondine’s presence gives their dreary lives a jolt of unexcited pleasure and a spiritual new meaning. Annie, a precocious child with an active imagination who reads up on mythical Irish folklore, is convinced her dad’s discovery is an honest-to-Pete, faith-and-begorrah Selkie, a legendary Celtic mermaid who assumes human form by shedding her seal skin. She warns the curious, bemused Ondine that if she loses her seal coat, she can’t go back to her underwater home for seven years-unless, of course, she finds unexpected happiness with a “landsman.” Despite some obvious charms that grow on you like a lichen, the movie at times seems to take something like seven years before its plot turns conventional and you finally find out who Ondine really is and why she’s hiding. I don’t understand the significance of the name Ondine, but there was a famous play called Ondine by Jean Giraudoux that ran for 157 performances on Broadway in 1954, about an enchanting mermaid, starring Audrey Hepburn in the title role. Sitting through the Neil Jordan movie, I felt like I was often at the wrong Ondine.
Unfolding with the tempo of a smoke ring exhaled from a corncob pipe, Ondine is annoyingly slow and marred by some structural problems; it don’t always ring true. But the brooding camera work of the fine cinematographer Christopher Doyle illuminates an elusive part of Ireland seldom seen even on tourist buses, and Mr. Jordan uses the magical nature of the plot to illustrate his special gift for showing strange, offbeat people on the edge of so-called “normal” society. Falling under Ondine’s haunting spell, father and daughter believe Ondine has been sent to change their lives, which indeed have been transformed by a halo of hope. Like his other films-Mona Lisa, The Miracle, Michael Collins, The Butcher Boy-Mr. Jordan has a unique vision, using character and landscape to transport the viewer to heightened planes of dreamlike fairy-tale experience. This one is a perfect example of why the Irish are such good storytellers on stormy evenings in the local pub with a pint of bitter stout.
As the mysterious Ondine, Alicja Bachleda is properly ethereal for a potential Selkie seeking to adjust to dry land, and Dublin-born Colin Farrell gets a welcome change of pace from his usual bloody, two-fisted brawling. My big caveat is that even when he shows his tender side, he babbles in a brogue thick as porridge, making great chunks of dialogue unintelligible. Neil Jordan regular Stephen Rea, as a philosophical parish priest, is even worse. Sometimes his lips don’t even part, and he sounds like his tongue has been stapled. It feels like you’re watching a foreign film with no subtitles. And it reminded me, in particular, how much I missed the dear, departed Barry Fitzgerald.
Yes, the film is marred by all those soupy, undecipherable accents and a dopey desire to get Ondine into as much see-through lingerie as the ratings board will allow. Eventually the ugliness of reality sets in, punctuated by gangsters, kidney transplants, a brutal car crash, the arrival of a violent figure from Ondine’s past and several near-death experiences that jolt the characters out of their lethargy. But even as the fable heads for the dark side, Annie’s prediction about happiness with a mortal comes true in time for a touchy-feely finale. Ondine is largely an appealing, soft-textured film with a nice touch of whimsy. You won’t go away sad.
Running time 111 minutes
Written and directed by Neil Jordan
Starring Colin Farrell, Alison Barry, Alicja Bachleda, Stephen Rea
3 Eyeballs out of 4