A fairy tale mashed up against the jagged unpleasantries of the modern world, “Ondine” is a film of unusual narrative currents and pungent tonal effects. Literary to its marrow both in its Irish-lilted language and the storytelling tradition upon which it draws, this modestly scaled home-base outing from Neil Jordan is a decidedly specialized affair that will appeal only to certain tastes, but there’s plenty to appreciate if you let it seep in. In a market that demands must-see elements especially from indie-style features, the film can’t expect more than fair returns.
Making one of his periodic returns to shoot in Ireland, this time to the fishing village of Castletownbere on the rugged Beara peninsula in the Southwest, Jordan here examines ideas related to luck, destiny, the distinction between physical and moral rehabilitation, the advantages of being willing to believe in good fortune, the value of storytelling, and the light and dark sides of fairy tales and life. Some of it is fanciful and some harsh, resulting in a deliberate collision of moods that defines the picture’s personality.
“Anything strange or wonderful?” the scrappy fisherman named Syracuse (Colin Farrell) inquires of his 10-year-old daughter upon greeting her, and the two adjectives more or less describe everything that happens in this yarn, beginning with the opening, in which Syracuse raises his fishing net from the bay to find within it a young woman who, unaccountably, is alive. Although fearful she could be an asylum seeker, he prefers to imagine otherwise, that she’s Ondine, “the girl who came from the water,” a sign that his run of rotten luck is at an end and he may now look forward to seven years of good fortune. Encouraging this view is the fact that his catches increase enormously with her arrival.
As the scruffy fellow relates the yarn in the form of a scarcely disguised kids’ story to his daughter, that’s what she chooses to believe, too. Annie (Alison Barry), who lives with her disgruntled mom and the latter’s loutish boyfriend, is confined to a wheelchair part-time due to weekly dialysis treatments, but has the sharpest mind and most articulate tongue in town. For whatever reason, Ondine (Alicja Bachleda) doesn’t want to be seen by outsiders, but Annie is the exception, visiting at the little cottage her dad keeps down by the bay and elaborating on his tale, and local legends, with the conviction that Ondine is one of the selkies — creatures who periodically emerge from the sea, fall in love with a human and grant a wish, only to return to the deep.
It takes a skilled writer to reconcile these wispy notions with the gritty realism that results, in this instance, in bloody violence, but Jordan is deeply versed in both these narrative veins and able to blend them into a single strand. Even if one can’t be too surprised by the eventual revelations of who Ondine is and who she’s hiding from, the incongruities remain startling, the plot twists “curiouser and curiouser,” as father and daughter like to say. Farfetched as it may be, the little fable makes an appealing case for the idea that, once you look at something a certain way, it will be easier to justify what happens as a consequence of having understood and believed things that way in the first place.
A lone wolf who’s been on the wagon for more than two years but can’t live down his reputation as the village clown, Syracuse is kind and patient with his beauteous guest, who has a trace of an accent and whose perceived otherworldliness initially enforces a certain distance vis-a-vis her savior. When the inevitable passionate intimacy occurs, it coincides with the arrival in town of a dark stranger and difficulties for all concerned.
The unusual story conception is bolstered by the picture’s strong physicality, which derives from cinematographer Christopher Doyle’s moody, muscular rendering of coastal County Cork’s alternately rocky and verdant landscapes. Bleak one moment, the setting looks like a cousin of Brigadoon the next, with weather that never wants to make up its mind. A notably unusual score by Kjartan Sveinsson at times achieves haunting effects.
Farrell is first-rate as a man with a dicey past who decides the wind has shifted in his favor, even if only for a while. Alert and good at quicksilver mood changes, the actor trades on his personal reputation by investing Syracuse with a healthy, self-deprecating attitude toward his errant past, especially in exchanges with the local priest (Stephen Rea) who knows him all too well. He’s also splendid with young Barry, graciously allowing the newcomer to steal every scene she’s in; captivating and terribly funny in her matter-of-fact display of Annie’s bluntness, intelligence, nonchalant bravery and assertive certainty as to how things are, she gives one of the great kid performances of recent times.
The role of Ondine is tricky in that the character must remain mysterious and undefined for a long stretch, and then not become too ordinary once all is revealed. A Polish thesp who surfaced in the 2007 film “Trade,” Bachleda is strong-featured and looks powerful enough to be a creature at home on land or at sea. She is also effective at letting her true and emotional self out at the crucial juncture.
Some of the thicker Irish accents will pose a problem for auds in the U.S. and elsewhere.