The popular European folk tale about Undine, the beautiful water sprite who gains a soul when a human falls in love with her (with the unfortunate proviso that the man is fated to die if he’s ever unfaithful to her—and guess what happens), is given a modern updating in Neil Jordan’s fanciful but gritty fable.
Colin Farrell stars as Syracuse, a rumpled, shambling fisherman in a small Irish coastal town. He’s estranged from his ex-wife and her boyfriend but devoted to his young daughter Annie (Alison Barry), who’s wheelchair-bound as a result of kidney disease, and with whom she shares a special bond. Syracuse has been having a rough time of it, catch-wise, but his luck changes when his net brings up a young woman who calls herself Ondine (Aicja Bachleda); suddenly his hauls are astronomical. The woman wants to avoid any contact with people and asks to stay in his cottage, and he agrees. The only other person she bonds with is Annie, who comes to believe she’s a selkie, a mythic sea creature that can fall in love with a human and grant him a wish. The arrival of a mysterious stranger who’s obviously searching for something and an accident involving two characters add to the mix.
“Ondine” is a hybrid that’s difficult to pull off—a magical fantasy told in an often grubby, down-to-earth style. But Jordan, an experienced fabulist, pulls it off. He captures the ordinary ambience of the dockside town and Syracuse’s dismal life as well as the ebullience of his connection with his daughter and the relationship that develops between the two of them and Ondine. He also manages to balance the slim possibility that something supernatural is going on with the more mundane explanation that Ondine is simply an illegal eastern European refugee with an unsavory secret in her past. It’s a juggling act he maintains to the very end.
Jordan also achieves a nice equilibrium between the more dramatic elements, which he keeps from becoming too heavy, and a leavening of humor. There are some particularly nifty moments in the conversations between Syracuse and the long-suffering parish priest (Stephen Rea) who’s all too aware of his failings—including a past drinking problem—and none too sanguine about the likelihood of his reformation. In the end, of course, things turn out well—but that’s the nature of fantasy, after all.
Most of the credit for the success of so unlikely a venture goes to Jordan, but he’s hardly alone. Christopher Doyle contributes cinematography that moves from gloomy to bright to suit the atmosphere of the moment, and Kjartan Sveinsson a score that adds a touch of strangeness to the proceedings.
And the cast is an important ingredient. Farrell sets aside any hint of leading-man smugness to offer a genuinely affecting performance of a scruffy but charming rogue, and Bachleda makes Ondine at once distant and approachable. Barry, meanwhile, joins the growing ranks of gifted child actors who can remain natural on screen. Then there’s the always reliable Rea, whose bemused attitude over Syracuse’s shenanigans can’t fail to earn a smile.
With its mixed mood of drama and fantasy, “Ondine” gets—as Syracuse and Annie, quoting “Alice in Wonderland” like to say—curiouser and curiouser. And viewers accustomed to Hollywood modes of storytelling may well find it too odd for their taste. But if you found a picture like Bill Forsythe’s “Local Hero” to your liking, this bit of Irish blarney should work for you as well.