Neil Jordan’s strange, lovely Irish fable casts a moody but welcome spell in this loud and all-too-vapid summer. Filmed in atmospheric blues and grays, as if the line between the real world and the realm of fantasy were blurred and inconstant, Ondine tells the story of the down-on-his-luck fisherman Syracuse (Colin Farrell), who pulls in his net to find a young woman (Alicja Bachleda).
Syracuse — nicknamed Circus for the shenanigans he got up to back when he was a drinking man — is shocked but quickly gets her breathing again. She’s coughing and frightened, then stunned and grateful, then terrified at the idea of seeing other people. She doesn’t seem to remember who she is; call me Ondine, she tells him. Syracuse offers her a haven from the prying eyes of the town: His ma’s old cottage down by the water. He wonders at her origins, but his sharp-eyed and imaginative little daughter Annie (Allison Barry) swiftly develops a theory: The woman is a selkie, a sort of seal shapeshifter out of Scottish legend.
Through Annie, who lives with Syracuse’s boozy ex-wife and is in need of a kidney, we learn a bit about selkie legend, how the creatures shed their seal skin and hide it, how they often fall in love with land men, how sometimes they stay true to them and other times slip back into the sea. Syracuse, who adores his small, frail daughter, takes in this explanation with a bemused patience, but you can see he’s starting to wonder about the beautiful, mysterious Ondine, too. And who’s to say the strange man who shows up in town isn’t Ondine’s seal husband, there to steal her back to the sea?
So much fantasy can easily become trite or too sentimental, but Jordan (The Crying Game, The End of the Affair, Interview with the Vampire) grounds his flights of fancy in the shapes of the ordinary world to keep them plausible: the shops of the town, the confines of Syracuse’s fishing boat or his cottage, the quiet doctor’s office where Annie endures her dialysis, the confessional where Syracuse spills out his secrets to a resigned priest (Stephen Rea).
Ondine can be quietly amusing at times, but it never becomes a Splash-style comedy. It’s impossibly romantic; Farrell and real-life partner Bachleda exude a tamped-down longing that intensifies as the movie draws to its conclusion. Mostly, though, Ondine deftly demonstrates just how far we’ll reach for any promise of relief from life’s hardships, in whatever form — magic or plain dumb luck — it arrives.
Cast: Colin Farrell, Alicja Bachleda, Allison Barry, Stephen Rea.
Director-screenwriter: Neil Jordan.
Producers: Ben Browning, James Flynn, Neil Jordan.
A Magnolia Pictures release. Running time: 111 minutes. Some violence, sensuality, brief strong language.