Neil Jordan’s Ondine is an imperfect film, but it’s the kind of imperfect film with staying power. It’s so personal, so obviously the work of its maker and so transparently made without regard for being hip or trendy that it’s also exactly the kind of imperfect film I deeply admire.
It’s actually been several days since I saw the film, and I’m no nearer to being certain how I feel about its much-debated ending. I understand the debate and I admit I wasn’t wholly happy with the movie’s final reel when I watched it, but the more I think about the movie, the more I also tend to think that Jordan’s point couldn’t have been made any other way. Without the ending (which I won’t reveal), how could he suggest that maybe it’s us — the adults — who need fairy tales, and not actually the children to whom we tell those tales? The very fact that I’m still thinking about the ending five days later goes a long way toward suggesting to me that Jordan made the right choice.
Ondine is set and was shot in Castletownbere, Ireland, where Jordan lives (this really is a kind of backyard filmmaking). That probably accounts for the utterly natural feel of his film — not to mention Jordan’s illusion-free love of the place. He knows the town and its people, and he knows the physical beauty that surrounds it, all the while having no romanticized view of life there. At the same time, neither does Jordan seem to feel superior to Castletownbere, nor does he reduce everyone there to stereotypes. This may be a modern-day fable, but Jordan realizes that it takes place in a world that — no matter how remote — has become hard on fables, thanks to the savviness that’s come along with mass communication, especially where young people are concerned.
Colin Farrell (in serious-actor mode) stars as the down-and-almost-out fisherman Syracuse (a name the locals have corrupted into “Circus”), a man with a none-too-forgiving ex-wife (Dervla Kirwan) and a precocious daughter, Annie (newcomer Alison Barry), who suffers from kidney failure and requires dialysis treatments. Syracuse has his own personal demons, too — mostly revolving around his loneliness and his status as a recovering alcoholic (both themes are hardly unknown in Jordan films).
Things change suddenly, however, when this fisherman’s usually empty net pulls in a woman (Alicja Bachleda), who grudgingly tells him he can call her Ondine. Syracuse isn’t sure what she is, or even if she’s real. Indeed, he suspects she can’t be real and works her into a fairy tale for Annie, who promptly decides that this “character” (whom Annie does suspect is real) must be a selkie, a mythical seal creature that can shed its seal skin and become human.
Not only does this strange woman affect Syracuse’s loneliness, but she also has bearing on his luck. Suddenly, his lobster traps are inhabited and his nets are full of fish — even fish that ought not to be there. Syracuse can’t explain any of this, but it seems that Ondine’s song — sung in a language he can’t understand, and which Annie takes to mean the woman must be a selkie — draws the fish into his nets. Since Syracuse has no friends, the only person he can think to tell all of this to is the local priest (the inevitable Stephen Rea), who takes a dim view of it, especially Syracuse’s admission of shoplifting women’s undergarments (“I don’t like it at all”). But then the priest is also not very keen on Syracuse’s using the confessional just because he needs a confidant he can trust.
The film then follows Ondine’s relationships with Syracuse and Annie, and we sense that Ondine is probably thankful for Annie’s knowing ways, in contrast to those of her rather naive parent (“This town is what’s called sartorially challenged,” opines Annie at one point). In this regard, Jordan’s movie is dead on the mark. However, there’s then the plot to consider, with its mysterious man hovering around the edge of the scenes; whether that part of the film is successful is more open to question. That said, the further I get from Ondine, the more I’m inclined to think the plot works.
I’m also beginning to think that the film’s final scenes actually enhance its misty poetry and gentle fantasy, rather than damage them. It may take a few more viewings to be sure, but I believe I can bear up under that, since I also believe Ondine is worth it. Rated PG-13 for some violence, sensuality and brief strong language.