CAPSULE: ONDINE (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Neil Jordan

FEATURING: Colin Farrell, Alicja Bachleda, Alison Barry, Stephen Rea

PLOT: An Irish fisherman scoops up a girl in his nets one day; is she actually a selkie?

Still from Ondine (2009)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  It’s not weird (that’s not a spoiler; weird is an aesthetic choice, and the movie might not be weird even if Ondine is a selkie).

COMMENTS:  Neil Jordan has gone weird from time to time (The Company of Wolves, The Butcher Boy), but even when he’s not being totally bizarre he’s often at least provocative (The Crying Game).  It’s therefore strange to see him helm a movie that plays it so safe, that aims so squarely at a middlebrow arthouse crowd who only ask for picture postcard vistas and enough painfully dramatic soul-searching to make the happy ending seem well-earned.  Starting with the myth of the woman from the sea who falls in love with a mortal man, Ondine breathes in magic, but exhales mere quality.  The cinematography by Christopher Doyle captures the quaint beauty of an Irish fishing village and the majesty of the surrounding ocean (often shot on overcast days so that the sky and the sea share a uniform blue-gray tint).  Performances by the principals are also top notch.  As Syracuse, the on-the-wagon alcoholic subsistence fisherman with a sickly daughter, Colin Farrell projects ancient guilt and sadness: this bedraggled, sad-eyed ex-rake never looks more at home than when he’s in a confessional.  Polish beauty Alicja Bachleda has an otherworldly sensuality that serves her character well; she goes swimming in sun dresses, then lounges in the sun like a seal with the wet clothes clinging to her.  Young Alison Barry does fine in a role we’ve seen many times before: the sad outcast kid whose belief in magic teaches the adults in her life a thing or two about the power of hope.  As for the script, in its mechanics, it’s hard to criticize (though I would have killed off a different character).  Jordan’s writing provides proper character depth and ties up loose ends cleverly.  The film’s overall narrative strategy, on the other hand, isn’t as easy to cozy up to.  It starts as a slow but pleasant drama with the ambiguity about Ondine’s true nature driving the tale, then wanders around in some melodramatic side alleys before resolving itself with a thriller conclusion that drains the magic out of the film.  The film also has a technical issue: for Americans, at least, the dialogue can be hard to make out due to the authentic Irish brogues and low conversational sound levels.  Stephen Rea, in particular, is indecipherable when he hushes his voice; I couldn’t turn the sound up loud enough to make out what he was saying.  Overall, it’s easy to see how someone could be briefly charmed by Ondine, but it’s hard to imagine even the most romantic soul being enchanted by it.  It’s more of a movie to flirt with than to take home to bed.  It seems like the kind of classical, meditative, risk-free story older filmmakers tackle when they want to make sure they are being taken seriously as artists—but it’s that very self-seriousness that makes what emerges a minor work.

“Ondine” was a 1939 play by Jean Giraudoux about a water nymph who falls in love with a knight.  Tales of women from the sea falling in love with mortal men are a common motif in fairy tales.  The film Ondine adapts Celtic folklore about the selkie, a seal who can shed her skin to become a beautiful female and mate with mortal men.  The same legend formed the basis of John Sayles’ 1994 independent arthouse hit The Secret of Roan Innish.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…works best when it stays within the blurry in-between space separating the everyday world from that belonging to story-time flights of fancy.”–Manhola Dargis, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

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