Ondine (2010) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
23Sep/100

Ondine (2010)

ANDREW LIKEI have to be careful writing about Ondine.  It exists in such a fragile bubble of fantasy that the slightest hint of disbelief on my part may shatter the illusion it could cast on the rest of you.  Here is a film that's completely unafraid to embrace it's fantastical elements, and then pulls back just when it thinks we need something real to hold on to.  Did I agree with that decision?  No, but it didn't shatter the fantasy and Ondine is a beautiful little film.

It's not surprising if you haven't heard anything about this film.  There's very little to suggest that Ondine made much of a splash anywhere outside it's native Ireland.  Granted, the story is one that we may have become too conditioned against to give a fair shot.  Ondine stars Colin Farrell as Syracuse, an Irish fisherman trying to eek out a living in waters that contain very few fish.  In the opening moments, Syracuse is alone in the middle of the river on his boat when his net comes up with the body of a young woman (Alicja Bachleda).

Syracuse quickly gives her CPR and she comes back to life.  She proves to be a strange woman, as she does not want any medical attention and hides away from the gaze of any other person when they pass by on their boats.  Ondine, meaning "from the sea", comes home with Syracuse and goes out on his fishing trips with him.  Her behavior grows stranger, she sings in a language he does not recognize, guides the boat with her feet and suddenly Syracuse is catching fish by the net full.

While most of the plot concerns Ondine and the mystery around her appearance, equal weight is given to Syracuse as he tries to get his life together.  His young daughter Annie (Alison Barry) is dying of kidney failure and he holds regular conversations with the local Catholic priest (Stephen Rea) to keep his alcoholism at bay.  Ondine turns out to have a calming effect on the other facets of his life and Annie begins to try and piece together who Ondine is, guessing that she is a selkie.

Neil Jordan makes stunning use of the deteriorating Irish town.

A selkie is a creature of Irish folklore that began life as a seal, and then shed that skin to seek the love of a special human.  If the selkie's seal skin is found and buried, the selkie becomes mortal and has to live the rest of it's life as a mortal.  Ondine shares a lot of the traits of these selkie's, but when strangers start poking around their quiet town it becomes clear that she may be special, just not in the way that Syracuse or Annie suspect.

This film walks a very fine line between the realm of fantasy where you have to totally surrender yourself to the screen, and the kind of fantasy that you roll your eyes at.  Thankfully, Ondine does not indulge that cynical side of me.  Aside from some late twists in the story that drug the film down to a level of realism I did not want, it remained wonderfully dream-like as Ondine moved through Syracuse's life with mutual tenderness.

There are two reasons that the film is so successful in doing this.  The first, and most potent, is Neil Jordan's direction.  It's clear that this was a labor of love for Neil Jordan.  He does not pitch the story at a level where anyone is inclined to find it ridiculous, and never does anything to specifically dispel the illusion of Ondine.  Jordan bathes every scene with visuals and colors that mix the industrialized waste of the town and the hidden possibility of earthly beauty.  There are many stunning shots in Ondine, and the cinematography by Christopher Doyle never fails to impress.

Bachleda and Farrell are wonderful in their scenes together.

The second reason it works so well is that the acting in Ondine is absolutely fantastic.  Colin Farrell has turned away from the spotlight in recent years, and has been turning in some of the best work of his career as a result.  He plays Syracuse with such a resigned sense of defeat that his gradual transformation into a stable human being is filled with real emotional resonance.

Alison Barry, as his daughter, and Alicja Bachleda, as Ondine, both have incredibly difficult roles in the film and succeed admirably.  Alison is asked to portray Annie as a little girl that is not necessarily the adult of the family, but a steady voice of wonder that can see what everyone else is blind to.  Alicja has the hardest job as she has to position Ondine as a woman that may be a mythological creature, and maybe someone dangerous.  She balances her performance perfectly, always able to suggest the ethereal while not losing that grounded touch.

This film really surprised me and its goodwill cannot be ignored.  The late third act twists may cause some to groan, but arrive filled with the same trance like wonder that the rest of the film succeeds on.  Ondine has real tenderness, and I found myself welling up with joy in those final moments together with Syracuse, Ondine and Annie.  Go into Ondine with an open heart and nothing will go wrong.

Ondine (2010)

Directed and directed by Neil Jordan.
Starring Collin Farrell, Alicja Bachleda, Alison Barry and Stephen Rea.

Posted by Andrew

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