I saw Neil Jordan’s new movie Ondine last week but I hadn’t planned on writing anything about it. I don’t see much point in panning a movie that not many people have heard of, but a few people have asked me if I had seen Ondine so I will tell you what I think.
I didn’t like the movie, but the theme is intriguing. The idea that we use fantasy and mythology to construct meaning out of things in life we don’t understand is fascinating. These fictions fill gaps in our knowledge and understanding but sometimes people can be so consumed by them that they cloud their perception of the world, not just filling in those gaps but preventing a true understanding of the world because our constructions often defy logic. This has gone on for centuries, but the Enlightenment and the Age of Science have supposedly made myths less relevant. Of course they aren’t. Urban legends continued when superstition proved irrelevant to the modern world. These modern fairy tales teach us lessons about our impersonal and unpredictable world, many miles away from the close knit societies of the pre-Modern Age.
Ondine is a film that wonders what happens when fairy tales reenter modern life. It explores how mythology can still affect lives despite the preponderance of reason and science. As interesting as all that sounds, Jordan fails to turn it into a compelling picture.
Colin Farrell plays Syracuse, a recovering alcoholic fisherman living in a small Irish coastal town. He shares custody of his wheelchair-bound daughter Annie with his still drinking ex. He is a failure at fishing and a failure in life, but still pushes ahead trying to provide all he can for his ill daughter. In the opening scenes of the movie Syracuse, or “Circus,” a nickname he can’t shake from his buffoonish drinking days, pulls up a half-dead woman in his net. He saves her life, but she claims to have no memory. She asks him to call her Ondine . What Ondine (Alicja Bachleda) does know is that she does not want anyone to see her so he can’t take her to a hospital or tell anyone about her. Intrigued by the beautiful woman he takes her to an isolated house that belonged to his now deceased mother. From there, naturally, they begin to fall in love.
It’s a little silly that he would go to these lengths and accept her story of amnesia, but I suppose men do stupid things for beautiful women all the time. He does tell her daughter about her and she is immediately convinced that the woman pulled from the cold water is a Selkie, a mythical water nymph. Annie’s assumptions about Ondine soon cloud Syracuse’s ability to accurately process what is going on around him, or even to ask the right questions especially as he falls in love with her. Unconsciously he begins to make the same assumption as his daughter, more out of a desire to hold onto their love than any real conviction that she is a water nymph. Believing that Ondine is a Selkie rather than just a girl with a past like the rest of us allows Syracuse to live in the fantasy he and Ondine constructed for each other a bit longer without dredging up the messy past.
The first couple of acts are quite good. Neil Jordan films the story with a quiet tenderness that succeeds. The problem comes in the last act when the story devolves into a typical crime chase vehicle that just isn’t credible. It undermines everything good that came before it. And to get to that climax Jordan needs characters to do things that don’t make sense and frustrates us. Why does Syracuse start drinking again? Nothing had happened that would have pushed him back to the bottle, but Jordan needed him drunk to make a dumb decision crucial for the story. That is sloppy storytelling, especially disappointing when we have invested in the movie up to that point.
Colin Farrell though is very good. His performance is restrained and awkward (in a good way). We see a man trying to put his life back together, always conscious of his clownish drunken past. (Hence the nickname Circus.) He is cautious at all times, tiptoeing through life after playing the town drunk for so long, desperately trying to prove he is a real man and father again. There are two characters with which he connects: his daughter Annie (played with a wonderful intelligence by Alison Barry) and the priest. He has some delightfully written and acted scenes with Stephen Rhea as the town priest who he treats more as a therapist than as a confessor. There is a joy and honesty both of the actors bring to these scenes. It’s a shame that Farrell has such a bad reputation because he is a solid actor. He doesn’t just do the big action movie like S.W.A.T. and Miami Vice well, but he has been good serious dramas, like A Home at the End of the World. He also had a great turn as a conflicted hit man in the 2008 comedy In Bruges. I hope other directors are willing to overlook his reputation and give him a chance to prove his worth as more than a sex symbol. He is a shamefully underrated actor.
I wish I the end of Ondine didn’t ruin what came before it because it was shaping up to be a quietly beautiful little movie. Grade: C+