Directed by: Neil Jordan
Starring: Colin Farrell, Alicja Bachleda, Alison Barry
Anyone who’s anyone can appreciate a good fairy tale, whether you’re 3, 13 or 30. Having been an avid admirer of everything characteristic of these fantastical treats for as far back as I can remember, Neil Jordan’s Ondine immediately caught my eye. Implementing elements of Scottish folklore into a setting that’s far less surreal, the story follows down-and-out fisherman Syracuse as he becomes increasingly perplexed by a beautiful young woman he’s inadvertently caught in one of his nets. Unsure of what to make of her peculiar behavior and at the insistence of his daughter Annie’s vivid imagination, Syracuse slowly begins to believe that this woman, Ondine, isn’t really a woman at all; she’s a Selkie, otherwise known as a mythical sea creature that can willingly shed its skin in order to become human. Ondine’s prolonged stay begins to at first greatly benefit both Syracuse and Annie, that is, until the dark truth plaguing her existence begins to unravel much to the chagrin of all involved.
Truth be told, I was reasonably prepared to just sit back and enjoy a mostly aimless fantasy-infused love story that Ondine immediately comes off as. Between some absolutely gorgeous cinematography in relation to the film’s equally stunning backdrop and a charmingly subdued tone, I can honestly say I was entranced by just about everything it had to offer in lieu of valuable substance. Even though this may still be a turnoff for some, it manages to remain affecting enough by way of Syracuse’s constant struggle to better himself for the sake of his ailing daughter, of whom is essentially all he has to live for outside of his newfound and infinitely mysterious love interest.
One can’t help but wonder if Ondine is essentially what the doctor ordered, bringing sunshine to the absolute darkest corners of the fisherman’s life, that is until a rather polarizing shift in the narrative comes along to blatantly crush our spirits. Off-putting as it may be, it’s hard to argue that the secret behind Ondine’s presence is anything but appropriate, regardless of the film’s more favorable first half and even Jordan’s deftness in integrating actual folklore into an otherwise normal society. In fact, the film’s latter act remains exceptionally involving from an emotional standpoint, and despite its shortcomings in venturing into darker territory, a tinge of hopefulness rings true throughout these sequences even as everything appears to be crumbling on the surface, resulting in a gratifying yet painfully conventional conclusion.
Ondine‘s performances tend to reflect its mostly unobtrusive nature, with Farrell’s spot-on portrayal of the exceedingly lonely (and recovering alcoholic) Syracuse permeating the entire production and making it all the more enjoyable. Thanks to a rather impressive turn by Alicja Bachleda, both leads manage to put forth some believable chemistry to further elevate the film above its minor drawbacks, with newcomer Alison Barry bringing enough charisma to the table to at least hold a candle to that of her costars. Stephen Rea’s efforts as the priest Syracuse consults as a means of finding at least a semblance of solace are also exceptional, but as for the rest of the supporting cast, their efforts are negligible outside of contributing haphazardly to Syracuse’s struggle to leave his troubled past behind.
Notwithstanding an admittedly enchanting premise, Neil Jordan’s latest ends up suffering from a bit of an identity crisis that ends up transforming it from a contemporary, straightforward fairy tale into a brooding realist’s version of what it initially sets out to be. Benefiting from an absolutely gorgeous visual quality that coincides wonderfully with its poignant emotional core and terrific performances, Ondine manages to overcome some of the issues this shift in focus presents to establish itself as something more than a footnote in the careers of all involved. Of course my fondness of mermaid-related lore and the like didn’t hurt matters any, but fans of Jordan’s previous work and those looking for a partially imaginative mash-up of fantasy and harsh reality will inevitably find something to like about this one.