If a guy pulls a beautiful lady from the ocean in his fishing net, he’s bound to jump to conclusions. Maybe she’s not “like other girls.” And since she’s arrived in a small Irish coastal town where young lovelies don’t just issue forth from the ocean like lobster or salmon, maybe she’s even a mythical sea creature.
Neil Jordan’s Ondine is a contemporary fairy tale, but with touches of the gritty, dystopian worldview the gloomy Irish director has often brought to films like Mona Lisa, The Crying Game, and The Brave One.
Syracuse (Colin Farrell) is the lucky fisherman, a recovered alcoholic living in his dead mother’s house and sharing custody of his wheelchair-bound, sickly daughter Annie (Alison Barry) with his belligerent ex-wife.
The arrival of Ondine (Polish actress Alicja Bachleda and Farrell’s real-life partner), a lithe young thing with almond eyes and a smoking bod, proves to be a nice remedy to Syracuse’s bachelor malaise. But the idea that one could catch a dream girl in a fishing net is just one of Ondine‘s fairy-tale conceits. Equally fantastic is the fact that the local variety store is stocked with the kind of flirty sundresses and lacy Victoria’s Secret underthings that will let Ondine show off her physical features. Jordan’s camera is equally at the ready to savor Ondine’s corporeal gifts with copious shots of her soaked to the skin and emerging from the sea. Female viewers will have to content themselves with Farrell sulking around the seaside in flannel, knit caps, and greasy hair.
Ondine is equally enticing for Annie, who instantly embraces the notion that the woman is an Irish spin on a mermaid, a selkie — a half seal/half babe from local folklore. Annie is soon brushing up on selkie stories at the local library and conspiring with the fishy lady to extend Ondine’s stay on dry land. In the kind of storytelling flourish that might sound great on the page, but becomes less poetic onscreen, both Ondine and Annie are clumsy on terra firma: Annie with her wheelchair and Ondine with her inability to completely acclimate to dry land.
The romance between the fisherman and his catch is Ondine‘s bread and butter. And while Bachleda is undeniably sexy, — with a unique, feline look and a beguilingly hard to place accent — try as Jordan might, her va-va-voom is hardly enough to hang a film on. Instead, it is the sweetly sparring Hepburn-and-Tracy relationship between Syracuse and the wickedly precocious Annie that gives the film its fleeting heart and soul. Jordan’s film is occasionally quite lovely, especially in this depiction of Syracuse’s strangely commingled love for both Ondine and his daughter, who he longs to bring home to live with him. The most fully drawn character in the film, Annie puts her adult counterparts to shame. She’s prematurely wise but also harbors a little girl’s belief in fairy tales. Annie embodies Ondine’s best impulses, that transitional zone the film occupies between cold hard reality and dreamy wish fulfillment. But unfortunately, Annie’s intelligent wistfulness can’t protect her from the resident predators. School kids joy ride with her new electric wheelchair, and her creepy tattooed stepfather appears to have the little girl in his crosshairs, virtually licking his lips in a big-bad-wolf style whenever she’s near him. Her slatternly mother is too drunk and oblivious to pick up on the icky vibes.
And Annie’s quirky presence also can’t save the problems with Ondine, from its fuzzy, listless quality to Jordan’s directionless storytelling to the thick-as-porridge Irish accents, which match the grey, murky cinematography blow for blow. Jordan’s story eventually loses its flirtation with fantasy for a grittier, less beguiling reality. Any good feelings Jordan may have built with his audience by suggesting Ondine as a contemporary fairy tale soon sour as his story turns into something else altogether.