Ondine: Starring Colin Farrell

Ondine Ondine Ondine Ondine Ondine

By Jeff Farr

Magnolia Pictures

Three years after his action film “The Brave One” (2007), director Neil Jordan has returned with a decidedly more personal film. “Ondine” stars Colin Farrell in Jordan’s version of the classic mermaid tale, which he reportedly shot entirely within five kilometers of his home in Castletownberre, Ireland. His love for the sea and land is clear from start to finish, but he has not come up with a version equal to his ardor.

Many have been waiting for Jordan to take a break from his Hollywood work–films like “The Brave One” and “In Dreams” (1999)–to strip things down in the mode of his imaginative earlier films, such as “The Butcher Boy” (1997) and “The Crying Game” (1992).  Stylistically, but not dramatically, he has accomplished that here.

Teaming up with Christopher Doyle, currently independent film’s top cinematographer, turns out to be Jordan’s wisest decision.  It is an adventure in itself to see Doyle, who has done landmark work with Gus Van Sant, Jim Jarmusch, and especially Wong Kar-wai, exploring with Jordan the southwest Ireland coast, an environment unlike any he has captured before. Doyle’s ocean photography, including some submerged shots, is particularly memorable.

The one-two punch of Doyle’s lensing and Tony Lawson’s tight editing makes for several startling visual moments in “Ondine,” but Jordan’s screenplay has trouble keeping pace with the ominous, watery look and feel of the film.

“Ondine” begins with an arresting sequence in which Farrell, as fisherman Syracuse, is surprised to hoist up not a fresh batch of fish but a beautiful body in his net.  The woman (Alicja Bachleda) seems to miraculously return to life when he touches her, thus beginning a romantic relationship between the two.  Ondine, as she wishes to be called, is insistent on not being seen by anyone. Syracuse, more spellbound than suspicious, complies, sneaking her off to his deceased mother’s home in an idyllic cove outside his hometown.

He then rushes off to take his young daughter, Annie (Alison Barry), who is in a wheelchair and suffering from kidney failure, to dialysis. During the treatment, Syracuse turns his day’s strange experience into a story to entertain the girl.  But as days go by and Syracuse continues to update the tale, based on his further interactions with Ondine, Annie intuits that the fiction is real.  She takes the initiative to meet Ondine in secret and begins her own research project into the mythology of selkies, creatures that are part human, part seal.

As Syracuse, Ondine, and Annie start coming together as something like a family, the question of Ondine’s true origins hover over their chances at a new life.  Is she indeed from the sea, as Annie insists? Or is she a troubled woman on the run from something or someone bad, as Syracuse perhaps senses?

Jordan is going for a modern-day fairytale this time.  In addition to the many references to the selkies, there are several allusions to “Alice in Wonderland” and “Snow White.”  However, he seems only able to take this material so far. When Annie repeats for the umpteenth time Alice’s famous line about things becoming “curiouser and curiouser,” audiences who remember “The Butcher Boy” may find themselves wishing this film itself were a bit “curiouser,” a bit more original and a bit less predictable.

The film’s third act in particular feels too mechanical.  Jordan attempts to intensify the drama with a couple of scary accidents, a life-and-death operation, and a violent confrontation with some bad guys. The truth about Ondine turns out, in the end, to be not so compelling.

“Ondine” was probably intended by Jordan as a fairytale where the real world comes crashing in. But the film winds up feeling more like an indie fairytale — shades of John Sayles’s “Secret of Roan Inish” (1994)–being invaded by some run-of-the-mill Hollywood plotting toward the end.

Fortunately, Farrell’s soulful performance transcends the screenplay’s limitations.  Syracuse is a near-total loser — known to the townsfolk as Circus to denote his colorful, alcoholic past — but Jordan helps Farrell bring out Syracuse’s endearing center: an overwhelming love for his ailing daughter. Taken together with “In Bruges” (2008) and “Crazy Heart” (2009), Farrell’s career seems to continue heading in a promising direction.

Stephen Rea, who has appeared in most of Jordan’s intimate films, achieves a crisp rapport with Farrell as Syracuse’s one friend, the town priest.  Although Syracuse is certainly not the churchgoing type, he regularly goes to confession with his priest.  Syracuse claims he does so because the town has no Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, but the attraction seems to be more the give-and-take that the priest allows.

It is a treat to see Doyle finding new ways to shoot the standard “confession booth scene,” helping Jordan reach the kind of intimacy that's been missing in his recent films.  These scenes are the strongest — and simplest — in the new movie.

Farrell and Rea’s chemistry is sadly not matched by that of Bachleda and Barry.  This is the first major film for both actors, and their inexperience shows on screen.  Bachleda tries too hard to be mysterious, and Barry tries too hard for precociousness. Her line readings are uneven, at times embarrassingly flat, even robotic. Cute? Yes. Convincing? Not entirely.