Monday, November 15, 2010

Ondine Movie Review: Colin Farrell finds love with a mysterious woman from the sea

Irish director Neil Jordan was at his best when he was focused on making distinctly Irish stories. The triple punch through the middle part of the 1990s of The Crying Game, Michael Collins and The Butcher Boy (we’ll conveniently ignore 1994’s Interview with the Vampire) helped establish him as an important filmmaker capable of crafting intimate character studies within the grander scope of the Irish Revolution and The Troubles in Northern Ireland. After steering off course for more than a decade, I wondered if Ondine, his return to his native country, would provide a welcome repose from the astounding mediocrity of everything from the psychological horror film In Dreams to the Graham Greene adaptation The End of the Affair. That and the inevitable pairing of one of Ireland’s best working directors with Colin Farrell, probably its best working screen actor, gave me some hope.

Ondine is a tall order, asking the audience to buy into a mystical fairy tale set in a contemporary fishing village in County Cork, Ireland. Farrell is Syracuse, a recovering alcoholic fisherman who pulls up a mysterious woman in his net one day. When she’s revived, she asks not to be seen by anyone else and tells him her name is Ondine, which means “from the sea.” She is played by a lovely Polish actress named Alicja Bachleda. He stows her away in a secluded seaside house, then goes and presents the story to his eleven-year-old daughter, Annie (newcomer Alison Barry) as a fairy tale narrative without an ending. Of course the ending hasn’t been written yet when he tells it.

Jordan, who also wrote the screenplay, has basically provided an updated version of a classical fairy tale structure. In this case there are two people who need rescuing instead of the old cliché of a beautiful maiden waiting for her handsome prince.

At school Annie has been learning a bit about creatures called selkies and begins to believe that the mysterious woman may be one. In Celtic mythology a selkie is a seal that sheds its coat to live on land and has the possibility of falling in love with a landsman, in which case she wouldn’t have to return to the water. Young Barry’s performance provides the best balancing act in the film. She makes Annie just precocious and inquisitive enough to be enticing without pushing her completely overboard into a typical nauseating child performance.

Meanwhile Syracuse has a host of problems including the need for a kidney transplant for Annie, her alcoholic mother who has legal custody, a dearth of fish coming up in his nets, and a village population that still thinks of him as the town drunk, calling him Circus because of his past clown-like ways. It’s a term of endearment, in a way, but not one that he appreciates. Even his priest (Jordan regular Stephen Rea), whose confessional booth Syracuse uses as an AA meeting (there’s no local chapter), can’t break the habit.

Syracuse takes Ondine out on his fishing boat on the second day, despite the well-known adage that women on fishing boats bring bad luck. However, when she starts to sing in (to Syracuse) an unrecognizable language, suddenly his nets are coming up loaded with fish. Is she a selkie? Is it possible fate brought them together to put his life back on track? And so the good luck keeps flowing, the mystery deepens, and meanwhile Annie keeps pushing the fairy tale because, in her situation – the daughter of two alcoholics and confined to a wheelchair awaiting unlikely and complex medical treatment – she has little else to cling to.

Jordan is boldly attempting to conflate myth and reality by embedding a mythological tale within the confines of realism. His story seems to want to strike at the heart of what fairy tales and myths do for us as individuals, but also as society. Most people have their own myths or higher callings that they subscribe to, whether it’s religion – here represented by the Catholic Church, – or tales of sea nymphs and magical songs that call forth the creatures of the deep. Syracuse has his calling in his AA confessionals while Annie has her selkie stories. In the end these are all different methods for humans to push despite the existential crisis that would otherwise stare them down without the escapism of myth.

Fairy tales provide ostensibly the same thing for children that religion provides for adults, which is a sense of hope and awe. And without revealing too much of the ending, Jordan more than suggests by the way fate and coincidence come together, that both belief and non-belief result in the same outcomes. You can maybe understand why a non-believer who lives in one of the most Catholic countries in the world would feel the need to hold on to such fairy tales.

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