The Irish have a rich tradition of fairy tales about as long as their historical English oppression and their post-independence struggles. In that spirit, while I haven’t seen a lot of Irish cinema, I doubt I’ll find one that sums up the modern Irish condition so well as Ondine.
Ondine is only the most recent film directed by Neil Jordan, who gave us such films as The Crying Game, Michael Collins, and Interview with the Vampire. This film is somewhat different from the others, but there is a certain rugged human spirit that links them all together.
The Story: One Down-On-His-Luck Fisherman, Seeking Family And Fortune
A fisherman named Syracuse (Colin Farrell) goes trawling one morning and happens to catch a young woman (Alicja Bachleda-Curus) in his net. She doesn’t give him her name and wants to avoid all other human contact, so he takes her into his home. We see more about his own troubled life: his alcoholism, his bitter divorce, and his disabled daughter Annie (Alison Barry). Eventually, Syracuse comes to believe that this new woman, whom he later calls Ondine, might in fact be a selkie, a mythological sea-woman whose singing brings him better luck in fishing and a little more joy into his life. However, not everything about Ondine is as magical as it seems and both she and Syracuse will have to confront their own dark pasts if they’re to be together forever.
The Cast: Sad People And Selkies
Colin Farrell gives a very believable performance as Syracuse (or “Circus”). Essentially, he just plays a straight-up working-class Irishman, who struggles with his alcoholism, his faith, and his commitment to his daughter, all while cracking jokes and dark one-liners about his lot in life. Ondine herself is an interesting contrast, more eager and delicate, and definitely uncomfortable with being out in the open.
Annie, Syracuse’s daughter, is an interesting character to round out the main cast. Suffering from renal failure and usually reliant on a wheelchair, she’s a very well-read child who immediately pegs Ondine as a selkie and weaves an entire magical narrative around her, while also trying to keep her father grounded on what’s important with a world-weary attitude. The other major side character is the local priest, played by Stephen Rea. He’s one hell of a straight man to Syracuse’s dry wit and a sympathetic counselor who wants the best for everyone.
The Theme: Magic Is Only As Real As You Let It Be
At times, the film plays up Ondine as having some kind of supernatural charm that lets Syracuse and his family have some better luck than they’ve had in a lot time (i.e., summoning fish to catch with her singing and granting other “wishes”). But for the most part, there’s a healthy amount of skepticism written into the story about just how magical Ondine really is. The climax of the film gives us a fairly dark answer to that question, but even then, there’s no denying the joy she’s brought to Syracuse and Annie. The overall theme of this film is about belief, which is appropriate considering how often Syracuse goes to his priest for help when things get too confusing or dangerous for him.
Final Verdict: Plenty O’ Magic In This Modern Tale
This film can move a little slow at times, but it’s got it where it counts. It has great comedic timing through Annie and Syracuse, a nice story arc illustrated through Ondine’s character development, and a very serious look at the hard lives of people in a small Irish fishing town. For some, I know that the climax might seem out of place compared to the rest of the film, but I have to give credit to Neil Jordan for pulling it off and giving a more satisfying conclusion.
By coincidence, I watched this film in late December, but I’m glad I got to review a nice romantic film for once–and on Valentine’s Day no less.
Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone! (Regardless of whether or not you’re in a relationship, I might add!)
Bibliography: Ondine. Directed by Neil Jordan. Produced by Ben Browning, James Flynn, and Neil Jordan. Written by Neil Jordan. Perf. Colin Farrell, Alicja Bachleda. Wayfare Entertainment; Little Wave; Octagon Films. Magnolia Pictures; Paramount Vantage. June 4, 2010 (US release date).