Film Review: Ondine

Colin Farrell's understated performance is the main attraction in this intermittently charming but largely bland fairy tale from writer-director Neil Jordan.
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Of all the U.K.-based filmmakers who achieved international recognition in the ’80s—a group that includes such notable names as Stephen Frears and Jim Sheridan—Neil Jordan has arguably had the most interesting and varied career. Since breaking through with the 1986 thriller Mona Lisa, the Irish writer-director has helmed films of all different genres and budget sizes, from art-house phenoms (The Crying Game) to blockbuster star vehicles (Interview with the Vampire), to smaller, more personal projects (The Butcher Boy). He's also made movies that fit into less prestigious categories, such as fascinating messes (In Dreams), thrill-less thrillers (The Brave One) and well-intentioned disappointments (Michael Collins).

If one were to assign Jordan's latest effort, Ondine, a place in his canon, it would fall somewhere between small, personal project and well-intentioned disappointment. Eminently watchable, but ultimately slight and unmemorable, this fairy-tale-influenced romantic drama feels like a deliberately minor work from a director who often challenges himself to take bold aesthetic and narrative risks, even in the movies that fall short. And when the person behind the camera is unable to fully invest himself in the picture, neither can those of us in the audience watching it.

Jordan's mind may seemingly be elsewhere, but fortunately his star Colin Farrell is fully engaged with the proceedings, continuing his recent career renaissance with another focused and nuanced performance. In a role that must have been written with him in mind, the former bad boy plays Syracuse, a recovering alcoholic who makes his living trawling the waters near his picturesque hometown on the Irish coast. One day—or, to use the proper fairy-tale terminology, once upon a time—his fishing nets pick up the prone body of a beautiful woman (Alicja Bachleda). After reviving her, Syracuse welcomes this sweet-natured but people-shy stranger into his home and soon notices some odd things about her behavior. For one thing, she insists the he call her Ondine, which roughly translates as "from the water." She also speaks English with an unfamiliar accent and her native tongue is unlike any language he's ever heard before. And then there's the matter of her beautiful singing voice, which is somehow capable of luring whole schools of fish into his boat's traps.

It takes Syracuse's daughter Annie (Alison Barry), a precocious youngster with a potentially fatal kidney disease that keeps her wheelchair-bound, to put two and two together: Ondine isn't a woman, but a selkie—a Scottish variation on a mermaid. (Instead of a half-human, half-fish hybrid, a selkie is a seal-like creature that becomes human when it sheds its skin on land.) Ondine laughs when informed of her "real" identity, but she doesn't deny it or offer another explanation for how she came to be floating in the exact spot where Syracuse fishes everyday. Annie's improbable hypothesis takes root in her father's mind, muddying the romantic feelings he's starting to feel for his houseguest. Meanwhile, another stranger arrives in town searching for Ondine and his presence may hold the key to answering the "Is she a selkie or isn't she?" question once and for all.

Material like this could easily have been played for maximum cutesiness and sentimentality—one of the main characters is a kid in a wheelchair, for crying out loud—but to Jordan's credit, he opts for a low-key approach that keeps the proceedings on an even keel. He also wisely refrains from overemphasizing the film's fantasy elements in its visual palette or storytelling structure. Ondine clearly aspires to be a serious drama that resembles a fairy tale rather than the other way around. At least, that's the way Farrell approaches the film and he does a fine job bringing Syracuse to life as a believable, relatable character.

Sadly, his co-star isn't quite up to the task; Bachleda is certainly easy on the eyes, but there's no spark to her performance. Then again, Ondine is a problematic role—she's a bystander for much of the film until a late-inning revelation retroactively makes her seem like a confused naïf at best and an opportunistic freeloader at worst. The movie jumps the selkie completely in the final act, which culminates in a climax marred by muddy visuals (it's hard to believe these scenes were lensed by noted cinematographer Christopher Doyle, the man behind the lush images in Zhang Yimou's Hero and Wong Kar Wai's In the Mood for Love) and contrived plot points. Jordan will always be an interesting filmmaker, but Ondine is perhaps his least interesting movie.