Fisherman Syracuse (Colin Farrell) boards his vessel and carries out his daily routine one morning. Quite unexpectedly, his trawling nets pull in something more than his normal catch; he finds a woman (Alicja Bachelda), close to death and suffering from amnesia so severe that she cannot remember her own name. She calls herself Ondine, and Syracuse takes her home at her request to be kept hidden. As Syracuse spends more time with this mystery woman, he learns she has good reason to wish to remain out of public view: She doesn’t fit in amongst the population of his coastal village, for one, and for another, the very sound of her singing seems to lead fish right into his nets and traps. Curiouser and curiouser.
So commences Ondine, Irish director Neil Jordan’s latest picture. Considering the small scale and intimate nature of the film, there’s a lot going on in its humble framework; most notably the film presents a thoughtful and thorough examination of folklore while simultaneously serving as a paean to such stories. Meanwhile, outside of the narrative and the plot, Ondine serves as a love note to the filmmaker’s beloved homeland as well as a showcase for a newly invigorated Colin Farrell to craft and deliver a quiet, gentle and touching performance as the film’s anchor.
Mythology drives Ondine. Syracuse, seeking to reconcile Ondine’s sudden appearance, relays their chance encounter in the form of a fairy tale to his daughter, Annie (Alison Barry), a precocious child frequently confined to a wheelchair as a result of the dialysis treatments she undergoes. Too clever for her own good, she detects her father’s fib and deduces that Ondine’s true nature is selkie— a creature capable of shapeshifting from a seal into a human. In her actions the film becomes emblematic of one of the chief reasons for the existence of such fairy tales: As a means to explain the mysteries of the world. There’s no logical reason for Ondine’s presence; the only possible conclusion is something that lands outside of conventional logic. And if Jordan’s attention to detail regarding the cultural mythology at the film’s heart isn’t enough to prove the film’s clear love for fairy tales isn’t enough, Ondine references numerous other entries in the genre more than once and quite blatantly– notably Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. This is a movie with myths and other flights of fancy in its bloodstream.
Ondine also provides another chance for Jordan to explore his obsession with depicting the ways in which an enigmatic woman can give the life of a worn down and weary man new meaning– something he’s done before in The Crying Game. Syracuse lives alone, in every meaning of the word: He resides by himself in a house that is isolated far off from the rest of the town. He shares custody of his daughter with his ex-wife, and lives with the shame of being remembered solely as the former town drunk (he’s referred to as “Circus” by his fellow villagers, a nickname he earned during his days as an alcoholic). While he’s several years sober when we meet him, the details of his life have clearly taken their toll on him; it’s only when he rescues Ondine from certain death at the bottom of the sea that his life, slowly, begins to turn around and he finds redemption for himself. And– maybe unsurprisingly– it turns out that in Syracuse Ondine may find the exact same thing.
If Ondine is to be recommended on the strength of only one attribute, it simply has to be Christopher Doyle’s stunning cinematography. Doyle is commonly known as a regular on Wong Kar-wai productions (In the Mood For Love, 2046), and hailed for his contributions to the Chinese master’s films, and he brings no less of an inspired and breath-taking touch to his craft here. Ireland, I’m told, is absolutely beautiful and Mr. Doyle has done it an incredible honor by rendering it through his own artistic vision, painting the coastal landscape in broad, lush strokes that make Syracuse’s world feel like as much a character in the film as our protagonist or any of the supporting players. Doyle’s portrait of Ireland lives, it breathes, and it dazzles; we should expect no less from one of the greatest cinematographers working today.
While Doyle’s work here is extraordinary, it’s not particularly revelatory; anyone familiar with his impressive resume knows of his talents and proclivities as a cinematographer. Ondine almost feels par for the course for him. The film’s real unexpected gem here, surprisingly, lies in Farrell’s sterling performance as our doleful hero. The troubled former bad boy actor brings a wealth of soulfulness to Syracuse, a man hamstrung and stymied by the shame he feels towards who he used to be. Syracuse appears to actively seek absolution for his transgressions while not actually knowing how to attain it; even after rescuing Ondine, he’s not sure what more to do for her or himself. His uncertainty in the face of his situation as well as his vulnerability are both made palatable by Farrell’s portrayal. His work here is complimented perfectly by his co-star, Polish actress Alicja Bachelda, with whom he shares a natural chemistry– though this should be expected given that the two have a child together. Like Farrell her presence is quiet and somewhat muted, but there isn’t a need for either of them to be more forthcoming. The romance of Ondine is guarded, private, and we see and hear what we must, nothing more.
Of course, as with most fairy tales, the truth of the film’s core mystery may be more grounded than the initial yarn leads us to believe but this only serves to support the film’s status as a comment on the nature of folklore: That the reality is always much more mundane than the enigma. But Jordan’s film suggests that even in real life we’re occasionally entitled to a fairy tale ending.