Alongside a higher profile supporting role as Tommy Sweet in Crazy Heart, Colin Farrell leads a small but capable cast in cinemas at the moment, in director Neil Jordan’s modern folk tale, Ondine.
Farrell plays Syracuse, a fisherman and recovering alcoholic who’s down on his luck, bringing home empty trawler’s nets every time he goes just off the coast of his small Irish hometown. The film opens on him catching, of all things, an unconscious woman in his net. When he resuscitates her, she can’t remember who she is or how she got there, and so Syracuse takes her home to his late mother’s bungalow by the sea.
When Syracuse goes into town, it seems no one is any the wiser about this mysterious woman, although his disabled daughter Annie, played by Alison Barry, suspects she’s a selkie, a mythical creature who can live on land for several years at a time. After the girl reveals an unusual talent for singing fish into Syracuse’s nets, Annie becomes all the more convinced that her dad has caught himself a selkie.
The possible selkie adopts the name Ondine, meaning “she came from the water” and strikes up a friendship with Annie, who’s enchanted by the romance of her origins. Upon further research, she tells her dad that selkies can stay on land for several years at a time, provided some manner of subterranean spouse doesn’t come after her to reclaim her. But whether she is a selkie or not, someone is coming for Ondine.
Does any of this sound a little familiar? That’s right. It’s like Ponyo for grown-ups! In a similar scenario, though, Jordan eschews the full-on fantasy approach and opts instead to ground it in a pseudo-thriller setting. This pays off in the way all the best fantasy films do, by making the fantastic (or supposedly fantastic) seem all the more amazing against the hum-drum banality of everyday life in rural Ireland. There’s only slight unease in how it straddles both fantasy and reality, and that comes largely in discerning who it’s really for.
The 12A certificate enables Jordan to strip Ondine, played by likable ingénue Alicja Bachleda, to her pants in various swimming scenes, and he does so with gusto. However, the more fantastical elements of the plot and the charming turn by Barry occasionally shoot for a younger audience.
Nevertheless, a stock Romanian baddy soon comes stalking around the small town, a stereotype that’s broad enough for children to understand and has enough resonance for adults to appreciate as well. This character is slightly reminiscent of Christopher Fulford in Danny Boyle’s Millions, another film which married a fledgling crime thriller storyline with a child’s perspective on matters.
And Barry is probably the best part of the film. As Annie, she acts as the audience viewpoint on Bachleda, clarifying her airy ambiguity and sustaining the mystery that drives the film. Is she a selkie? Isn’t she a selkie? It’d be all too obvious if not for Barry’s arresting performance. She’s sparky and performs remarkably well with Farrell, forging a believable father-daughter relationship. Bachleda might have fared better for being less sexualised through Jordan’s lens, but she’s charming enough.
There are also some decent supporting turns from Dervla Kirwan, Tony Curran and Stephen Rea. Crucially, they are at least a little flabbergasted by the idea that Ondine might be supernatural – the one thing that was absent from Ponyo and seemed to bother everyone.
It might not look as good as Miyazaki’s film, but it’s at least a lot less shrill than the dubbed version.
With cinemas dominated by the likes of Green Zone and Shutter Island, it seems Ondine was always destined to be a one-week engagement in most cinemas, but if it’s still playing near you it’s definitely worth a watch. If not, wait for the DVD to see a film that Colin Farrell deserves kudos for being attached to. Presumably his star power held some sway in getting this low-budget delight to the screen.
This feast of charm and whimsy is to be recommended, even if it’s not entirely sure which audience it’s aiming for at times.