Review by Mike D’Angelo
Posted on 02 October 2009
Source Paramount Vantage 35mm print
Categories The 2009 Toronto International Film Festival
Something about the Irish/Scottish legend of the selkie seems to loosen filmmakers up. Back when he was considered one of America’s most important indie directors, John Sayles took a breather from his doggedly leftist agenda and made The Secret of Roan Inish, a thoroughly charming tale of a sad little girl who goes to live with her grandparents and finds odd comfort in ancient mythology. And now here comes an actual Irishman, Neil Jordan, with a similarly atmospheric saga of a fishing village, a cute moppet and a possible seal-woman. Taking a wise retreat from the blatantly phony urban violence of his last picture, The Brave One, Jordan wrote the screenplay for Ondine from scratch – his first wholly original script since The Crying Game, believe it or not – and it’s his most relaxed effort in ages. If it never quite manages to become much more than a pleasant bit of blarney, that’s still more than welcome.
Plus, it’s always nice to see Colin Farrell in an Irish movie, speaking with his own accent and seemingly unconcerned about living up to some dumb Hollywood image. Here, he plays Syracuse, better known as Circus, a divorced fisherman who’s stunned one otherwise ordinary day to find a gorgeous young woman, still alive, wrapped up in his net. Ondine, as she calls herself, has little to say regarding where she came from and seems determined not to be seen by anybody other than Circus, hiding out in his ramshackle seaside home. But when Circus’ 10-year-old, wheelchair-bound daughter, Annie, hears her dad’s story of a mysterious, otherworldly woman from the sea who likes to sing in some unknown language, she instantly concludes that Ondine must be a selkie—a seal in human form, more or less. Ondine falls in love with both father and child, but her past, whatever it is, can be seen lurking around corners.
Part of the pleasure of Ondine is the way that Jordan, working in a grand old Irish tradition, revels in the collision of fanciful myth with drab reality. Ondine never actually claims to be a selkie, but she never quite discourages the idea, either, and the film keeps tossing out both hints that she might actually be part seal and evidence that she’s just a foreigner on the run from a very human predator. (The revelation about her weird singing is a fantastic joke.) At the same time, this isn’t a mystery—what’s important is the effect that this unusual stranger has on Circus and Annie, both of whom desperately need a sense of hope in their disappointing lives. The film functions, too, as a vivid photographic love letter to the southwestern Irish coast, with its magnificently gloomy skies and its tiny, remote islands.
Which makes it all the more frustrating when Ondine eventually runs into what can only be called third-act trouble, getting bogged down in the very plot elements that Jordan had so deftly avoided for so long. Not only does the film abruptly “up the stakes” in a tedious, Syd Field-approved way, but these frantic developments demand serious acting chops from Alicja Bachleda-Curus, the Polish actress in the title role, who had previously been required only to look ravishing and vaguely haunted. That things conclude on a bum note retroactively erodes some of the magic, but it’s hard to feel too sour when you’ve had 2/3 of a marvelous good time. Ondine and The Secret of Roan Inish are still the only two selkie movies I’ve ever seen; if they’re all this warm and inviting, let’s please have them more than once ever 15 years.
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