Steven Soderbergh is the poster boy for filmmakers who alternate big commercial assignments with small, arty “personal projects.” But deserving equal credit in that department is Neil Jordan, the Irishman probably best known on one hand for arthouse “She’s a man!” smash The Crying Game. He’s had duds, to be sure–his first Hollywood features were unhappy experiences (both to make and to watch); period epic Michael Collins was a little flat and Jodie Foster vigilante thriller The Brave One was dismissed. (Not that I’m a fan of that movie, but why do bad action movies starring women get ridiculed so much more?)
Indeed, Jordan is no better than his material when that material is ordinary, like 1999’s serial-killer nonsense In Dreams or the OK Bob le flambeur remake The Good Thief. However, no one else is so expert at a particular kind of tricky content that, in literary terms, would be termed magical realism, and which frequently doesn’t work onscreen. It works for Jordan, whether the film is a mainstream behemoth like Interview with the Vampire (Didn’t he both visualize and improve upon Anne Rice’s purple extravagance, force Tom Cruise to act and get brilliance from Kirsten Dunst in an impossible child role?) or a small arthouse film like 1991’s exceptional The Miracle. Who else could have realized novelist Angela Carter’s unique mixture of the witty, fantastical and disturbing in The Company of Wolves (1984)? Who else could have pulled off a simultaneously rollicking and horrific adaptation of Patrick McCabe’s The Butcher Boy, a story told from the viewpoint of a psychotic child, or even Graham Green’s The End of an Affair, a bitter and melancholy novel whose twice-told story hinges on an actual religious miracle? Perhaps Jordan has a knack for adapting the works of complex novelists because he is one himself.
After the supposed debacle of The Brave One, Jordan’s latest, Ondine, finds him back on personal terra firma with a story (his own, in conception and screenplay) that sits exactly on the thin line separating reality and fantasy. It’s hard to think of a filmmaker who could successfully manage a serious, non- Splash -like movie with the main narrative hook being, “Is she or isn’t she a mermaid?”
OK, not exactly a mermaid but a selkie–that creature in Irish, Scottish and Icelandic mythology that can shed its seal skin to take human form and dwell on land, at least for a while. (Outside those nations, the selkie’s widest impact has been in John Sayles’ 1994 indie sleeper The Secret of Roan Inish).
Syracase (Colin Farrell) is a fisherman living in a small County Cork town. His life is complicated: He stopped drinking to be a better parent to 10-year-old daughter Annie (Alison Barry), whose diabetes generally leaves her too weak to move save by wheelchair. But upon doing so he was thrown out by Annie’s embittered, still pub-crawling mum, who’s since taken in a new hard-boozing boyfriend. Stuck living with this latter duo, mature-beyond-her-years Annie tolerates their irresponsibility, while preferring to spend frequent time with dad.
Out trawling one day his net “captures” something rare: A beautiful young woman (Mexican-born, Polish-raised Alicja Bachleda, who is also Farrell’s offscreen companion) of indeterminate foreign accent who might be a fugitive from something or other, saved from drowning. Or is she a selkie who’s assumed human form in order to fall in love with a man? Either way, she seems most reluctant to be seen by anyone but her rescuer.
Annie decides it’s the latter. Her research both library–and spying-based –the kid’s new government-issued motorized wheelchair (yeah nationalized health care…terrible!) is an all-terrain vehicle–suggests as much. Yet “Ondine,” the name she comes up with when Syracuse demands one, is also evidently hiding from a suspicious man (Emil Hostina) whose snooping arrival suggests a very real-world, problematic backstory.
Meanwhile, natch, Syracuse and Ondine fall in love.
Ondine is a complicated tonal gamble that doesn’t always pay off. Colin Farrell is maybe too distractingly obvious a movie star–rockstar hair ‘n’ all–to convince as village loser, though there’s nothing wrong with his acting. As written, Annie is artificially precocious, though both Barry’s performance and Jordan’s direction softpedal that.
Some narrative contrivance works, some doesn’t. I’m not a fan of Sigur R¢s (having tried), but if you are, the film’s soundscapes of sludgy ethereal wordless chants by Kjartan Sveinsson will be heaven. (For me, this stuff is New Age Muzak pop a la Enya knocked up a few IQ points.)
On the other hand, Ondine is a much more complexly unpredictable story than one might initially expect. There’s a wonderful performance by Jordan regular Stephen Rea as the local priest nonbeliever Syracuse regularly “confesses” to because there’s no nearby AA meeting. Shot by Director of Photography artisan Christopher Doyle (best known for Wong Kar-wai films), the movie has a distinctive visual texture that doesn’t simply take advantage of the Irish coast’s postcard beauty but creates a briny, blur-edged reality in which the sea seeps into every corner.
Ondine doesn’t entirely work. But it’s a complicated, ambivalent lyrical poem on celluloid no one but Neil Jordan could have imagined–or realized so naturally.
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