By Don Simpson | June 11, 2010
Director: Neil Jordan
Writer: Neil Jordan
Starring: Colin Farrell, Alicja Bachleda
“Does it always have to be ‘Once upon a time’?” – this question is posed by little Annie (Alison Barry), a wise-beyond-her-years preteen suffering from a bum kidney which has landed her in a wheelchair. Neil Jordan’s Ondine is a modern day fairy tale with a figurative “once upon a time” beginning in which an Irish fisherman named Syracuse (Colin Farrell) hoists a European runway model – Ondine (Alicja Bachleda) – from the depths of the sea in his fishing net. Ondine does not seem to remember who or what she is. Annie, Syracuse’s daughter, believes that her father’s catch of the day is a selkie (a seductive sea creature – similar to a mermaid, siren, or ondine – with a lovely singing voice found in Scottish and Irish mythology). Whatever Ondine is, she seems to give Annie and her divorced father (a recovering alcoholic) a glimmer of hope in their otherwise dreary working class world.
Neil Jordan’s Ondine is a tale about fairy tales, stories that no matter how unfathomable and fantastical they have become were once based on some resemblance of reality. Fairy tales are literally the stuff that dreams are made of. They are meant to teach lessons while also restoring hope and faith. For an economically shoddy seaside town like the one featured in Ondine, fairy tales (and religion) are what keep the population alive and willing to plod onward. No matter how hopeless Syracuse and his family’s life may be, the fantasy that a beautiful selkie may have graced them with her presence seems reason enough to exist. Ondine is everything that Syracuse and Annie could have ever dreamed of and then some…
Farrell’s subtle and restrained performance is one of the best I’ve seen from him; he’s the pillar of reality throughout Ondine, constantly awaking the narrative from its dreamlike lapses. His strained relationship with his alcoholic ex-wife (Dervla Kirwan) is brutally honest; as is the crippling Catholic guilt which haunts his every thought and action. Bachleda – obviously cast for the bewitching manner in which wet clothing clings to her frame (she dons either a wet dress or skivvies during most of the film) – is mesmerizing to watch; her unabashedly unreal performance works in perfect opposition to Farrell. Barry falls somewhere in between – she speaks fantastically, years above her grade level; yet her everyday trials and tribulations concerning her liver disease and broken family are devastatingly real.
Christopher Doyle’s cinematography, lusciously blanketed with deep blues and greens, exemplifies the dreary and depressed Irish seaside town in which the actions occur. The images walk the same line as the story itself – drunkenly wobbling between the world of fantasy and realism. Ondine is in itself a contradiction – the realism is made less believable by the fantastic and the fantastic is made less believable by the realism – and that is truly its greatest weakness.