This poor little film. You can just tell it’ll take a beating. All it seems to care about is beauty, mystery, simplicity, and the sooty grey-green textures of the forgotten Irish seaside.
Colin Farrell is a divorced, alcoholic fisherman named Syracuse — and nicknamed Circus, for his clownish benders of yore — whose net one day drags an oddly bewitching woman (Alicja Bachleda) up from the sea. His clever, sickly young daughter (Alison Barry) soon declares the stranger a mythical visitor, and tries to fix her up with dad. There is also a wise, wry priest (Stephen Rea) on hand to advise, “Misery’s easy, Syracuse. Happiness you have to work at.”
And although trumpeted by sensitivo critics grown weary of calculated blockbusters and other too-belabored movie-magic acts (yes, even the almighty Pixar lately seems adamant to enchant), this poor little film will upon first inspection strike all but the most openhearted viewers as some sort of ill-advised, stubbornly provincial Splash knockoff, a quarter-century late to boot. That’s assuming they can even make out a word of Farrell’s thickly accented hangdog muttering.
But like that spirited little girl in the wheelchair, Ondine can take care of itself. It doesn’t need your pity. It can be taken or left. Its point is really nothing more than the delicacy of the spell it casts, the fable as rebuke to grim reality. Accordingly, it is a rejuvenation for writer-director Neil Jordan, whose own adventures in Hollywood — ranging from Interview with the Vampire to The Brave One — have started to seem like glummest of doldrums, near-undoings of the greatness he brought to more independent fare like The Crying Game. Here Jordan’s in control again, confidently allocating Ferrell’s and Rea’s shrewd affability, Bachleda’s necromantic eroticism, Barry’s welcome aversion to child-actor precocity, and the natural ease with which cinematographer Christopher Doyle records the mossy, salty landscape. Transcendence, Ondine quietly and Irishly suggests, still is possible.
“Try to imagine a happy ending,” the kid tells her father at one point, with compassion and also a hint of impatience. This is a man who lost custody of his girl to her fellow-boozer mother (Dervla Kirwan), even though he might now be the more stable provider. This is a man who only confesses to his priest because there’s no local chapter of AA. He has made a little nest for himself in his own low expectations. But when his glamorous guest arrives, and apparently begins singing lobsters straight into his traps, you can see him start to take his daughter’s advice. When he buys the mysterious stranger a dress, and she says, “It’s just tight on the edges,” you can co-conspire in his sly reply: “You have edges?”
She, meanwhile, warms to the possibility of being someone else’s fantasy, and in just such a way that it deepens her mystery. This situation is not without some menace, of course, and Jordan has a knack for balancing the buoyant mists of parable with the grounding grit of real-world actuality. As in The Crying Game, he uses the narrative non sequitur to check sentimentality, and to keep things interesting.
Ondine finds a way to make a fable work in our world. It may go unnoticed or unloved, but even so its grace is undiminished.