By Scott Weinberg (reprint from 4/22/10 -- Tribeca Film Festival)
Take a dash of Splash, a generous pinch of The Secret of Roan Inish, and a healthy portion of low-key and very effective Irish charm, and the result is Ondine, a sweet and frankly lovely little film from Neil Jordan. Best known for movies like Mona Lisa, The Crying Game, Interview with the Vampire, Michael Collins, and The Brave One, Jordan approaches his latest project as if it's a modern-day fairy tale -- while probably hoping that his audience is not too cynical to play along.
Colin Farrell stars (and excels) as a fisherman with a handicapped daughter, a dumpy trawler, and a history of alcoholism. But things take a turn for the weird once the lovely Ondine (Alicja Bachleda) pops up in one of Syracuse's fishing nets. At first he believes the stunning woman to be a figment of his imagination, but reality kicks in once his adorable but wheelchair-bound daughter Annie (Alison Barry) befriends the mysterious woman.
The wistful belief between Syracuse and Annie is that Ondine is a "Selkie," a creature sort of like a mermaid, but one beholden to an entirely different set of rules. (For a better definition of the "creature," see here.) Deep down they know it's a game ... but then why are Syracuse's fishing nets suddenly swollen with whoppers? How to explain the bizarre occurrences involving Syracuse's glum ex-wife and the overall "effect" that Ondine seems to have on men?
Ever the crafty veteran filmmakers, Jordan (who wrote as well as directed) leads you in one direction, only to throw a few unexpected surprises into the mix. Nothing all that brilliant, truth be told, but the plot curves (both the obvious ones and the unexpected) manage to keep Ondine from becoming too pat, predictable, or saccharine. Set in a small island town and populated by the earthy sorts found in films by Alan Parker or Jim Sheridan, Ondine plays out as an unapologetic Scottish/ Irish fable that just happens to take place in the real world. The success of the film hinges on Jordan not tipping his hand too far in one direction. Just when things get a bit too "fantastic," real life intervenes, often shockingly, and the two-headed nature of the narrative works surprisingly well.
It certainly doesn't hurt that this rather sweet flick comes complete with some stellar Christopher Doyle cinematography, a very fine score from newcomer Kjartan Sveinsson, an excellent low-key performance by Farrell, and the simply luminous presence of Ms. Bachleda. There's also some excellent support work from the likes of Stephen Rea, Tony Curran, and particularly Dervla Kirwan, as Syracuse's estranged (and troubled) ex-wife.
So while Ondine might make you think of Splash (for just a few minutes) or Roan Inish (here and there), Jordan does a fine job of making his own mark in the rarely-tapped "mermaid fantasy movie" market. One might think that Neil Jordan is "taking it easy" after a career filled with both indie-style successes and movie star hits -- but if that's the case then I say he should keep taking it easy -- because Ondine may be one of the best films Neil Jordan has made yet.