Sober alcoholic Syracuse (Colin Farrell, "In Bruges," "Crazy Heart"), known by the Irish locals as 'Circus' because of prior shenanigans, is fishing off the coast of Castletownbere on his boat the Lucky D one day when an extraordinary thing happens. When he hauls up his net, a beautiful woman is entangled with the fish. Initially panicked, Syracuse discovers the mysterious woman is alive but when she becomes agitated at the thought of medical attention or any attention at all for that matter, he hides her in his deceased mother's caravan on a remote bay. From that day on, Syracuse's string of misfortunes turn into the most unlikely luck all because of the woman - or is she a selkie? - who calls herself "Ondine."
Writer/director Neil Jordan ("The Crying Game," "The Brave One") returns to the realm of fairy tales where he began his career with 1984's "The Company of Wolves." But where that film was dark with autumnal forests, this one is light with blue seas. This whimsical tale of a sad fisherman redeemed by a 'water baby' with a romantic assist from his cherubic, disabled daughter Annie (Alison Barry), is crafted by Jordan with such a light touch that it seems to weave a spell around its viewer unawares, like a fish caught in a gillnet.
After leaving Ondine (Alicja Bachleda, "Trade") with the sandwiches the day's 'unusual fishing' made him forget to eat, Syracuse rushes, late to pick up wheelchair-bound Annie for her dialysis treatment. (Her mother, Maura (Dervla Kirwan), still drinks and threw Circus out when he stopped. She now lives with Scotsman Alex (Tony Curran, "Red Road"), a nice enough if rough-around-the-edges guy). On the way home, when Annie demands her usual story, Syracuse tells her the events of the day. The precocious Annie thinks his unformed story is lousy and she is the one to suggest its subject is a selkie (a myth originating in Scotland's Orkney and Shetland Islands where a seal can shed its coat to become a human but which must return to the sea unless its coat is hidden or destroyed).
When Ondine, whom Syracuse has clothed with a dress and sundries lifted from a local shop, accompanies him on the Lucky D, her ethereal singing seems to make lobsters jump into pots. He's smitten and 'confesses' to his best buddy, the local Catholic priest (Stephen Rea, "The Crying Game," "Stuck," giving the Church a much needed very good and funny face here). Things get more complicated when Annie gets a motorized chair and goes out to the caravan to see what she's surmised for herself. Later, fishery inspectors board the Lucky D to find salmon in a trawling net (purportedly an impossibility) and a woman below decks who swears by Syracuse's story. As the town begins to buzz about the company Circus keeps, a man in a dark moustache (Emil Hostina, "The Wolfman") begins to skulk about town and Annie, who conspired with Ondine to bury her coat, is convinced he is her selkie husband come to reclaim her. A wish for Annie's return to health is granted via a tragedy which, aided by a selfish Maura, nudges Circus off the wagon.
Colin Farrell has been on a most marvelous upswing ever since his Golden Globe winning turn in "In Bruges," and here, in his homeland, he is rooted in his own blue collar, ex-alcoholic past, but just as with Jordan's direction, there is a lightness to his acting here. We can feel his absorption in both his daughter and the new woman in his life, but he still coasts on a devil-may-care wave, best exemplified by his truly amusing relationship with Rea's priest. Born in Mexico to Polish parents, Alicja Bachleda, Farrell's real life partner, is as foreign as her vaguely French accent and she projects an untamed wildness with an underlying yearning for domesticity. She's also blessed with a haunting singing voice. Young Alison Barry does the nimble trick of taking the brat out of precocity and delivers some of the film's funniest lines -'this town is what you'd call sartorially challenged,' for one. Rea, a frequent Jordan collaborator since 1982's "Angel," hasn't had a feature role this memorable in years and has a nice parallel subplot in this fairy story by becoming a virtual tree.
The film was shot by Christopher Doyle ("In the Mood for Love," "Paranoid Park") in a semi-straightforward manner that nonetheless has an underlying sense of magic, accentuated by original music from Sigur Rós keyboardist Kjartan Sveinsson, both of which recall "Local Hero" yet achieve their own tone. If the movie has a fault, it's with the ending. Filmed with a digitized effect, Jordan explains all nicely, his myth become reality, but it feels rushed, as if the director suddenly realized he had fifteen minutes of story telling to fit into five minutes of screen time. Still, "Ondine" has the wonderful effect of sneaking up on and enchanting its viewer and is a wonderful return to form for the Irish writer/director.
Syracuse (Colin Farrell) is an Irish fisherman struggling to make ends meet. This is about to end when he hauls in his nets and discovers a young woman (Alicja Bachleda) entangled there. He thinks he has caught a selkie, a mythical creature from the sea that can take on human form, and believes so when his luck changes and catches become bountiful. But, there is trouble brewing on the horizon and it centers on “Ondine.”
Writer-director Neil Jordon ventures into fairytale land with a quiet family drama that makes you want to believe that selkies do exist. The film focuses, mainly, on three characters – Syracuse, Ondine and Syracuse’s handicapped daughter, Annie (newcomer Alison Barry in a terrific debut). They form a tiny family unit and Ondine’s presence helps gentle the volatile Syracuse, with a lot of help from Annie.
This is a sweet little flick that will not likely get the attention it deserves. The characters are fully dimensioned and the actors fill their shoes nicely. “Ondine” is gracefully shot by uber-lenser Christopher Doyle and the islands around Ireland’s County Cork are a beautiful backdrop. This warm hearted fairytale gets a B+.
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