Director Neil Jordan’s Ondine is a highly watchable film, well-paced and interesting throughout, but it’s also strangely aloof, distancing itself from viewers until the end when everything is revealed. It works well enough up to that point, but then degrades in retrospect the way a B-movie thriller might. A little ambiguity would have gone a long way here.
It’s a self-referential fairy tale. Some will know exactly where Ondine is headed based on that description alone. The characters know they’re living in a fairy tale, but they accept it anyway. They want to accept it, they want the fairy tale. Don’t we all? For Jordan to play the is-it-real game here shows a kind of disconnect with his audience.
Syracuse (Colin Farrell), a lonely fisherman, pulls a woman (Alicja Bachleda) up in his net. She is, magically, alive. A mermaid? No, she’s a selkie: a mythical creature that can shed her sealskin and become a human for seven years. Or so Syracuse’s daughter Annie would like everyone to believe.
If this sounds familiar, you may have seen John Sayles’ excellent The Secret of Roan Inish, a straightforward adaptation of the selkie legend. Or the Tom Hanks/Darryl Hannah romance Splash, or the M. Night Shyamalan misfire Lady in the Water, both of which explored similar themes. Or maybe you’ve heard that joke about the fisherman and the mermaid
At its best, Ondine is touching, even heartwarming, full of gorgeous seaside Irish locations and rich Christopher Doyle cinematography. It’s always great to look at. There’s also that patented Irish whimsy, on full display during scenes between Syracuse and his priest, played quite wonderfully by Jordan regular Stephen Rea.
But at its worst, Ondine seems to become something else entirely. At the end, I found myself picking apart plot contrivances and asking how-didn’t-she’s and why-didn’t-he’s and thinking that this is exactly the kind of movie I shouldn’t be doing this after.
If nothing else, I applaud Jordan for taking chances; his best films, The Crying Game and The Butcher Boy, have also played with narrative tone and audience expectations. So Ondine doesn’t work out as well in the end, but it’s a pleasant-enough ride until then.
Beware some thick West Cork accents, which distracted me here more than the usual Irish film. Ferrell is quite good and very likable; clearly more at home here than in some US productions, despite a variation on his usual Dublin brogue. But Polish actress Alicja Bachleda frequently steals the show as the titular selkie.