|Stephen Rea||The Priest|
Neil Jordan has explored fantasy and folklore in movies like In the Company of Wolves (1984) and Interview with the Vampire (1994). And in his best movie, the gender-bender The Crying Game (1992), he took shape-shifting to a shivery level with a deliciously confounding twist that left audiences gasping (and won him an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay).
With Ondine, Jordan returns to those waters, and fishes out a beautiful, mysterious woman-like creature (Alicja Bachleda) from the deep. She comes up in the net of an Irish fisherman, Syraceuse (Colin Farrell), off the Beara Peninsula in southwest Ireland. Amazingly, she’s alive, and after a lot of choking and coughing that makes you wonder if it’s the water she’s swallowed or the air she’s breathing that’s giving her trouble, she stabilizes, and gives her name to the fisherman as Ondine. This may not be her real name, as it’s from an old German folk tale about a water nymph who curses her lover to die of sleep apnea; but then, she may not be a real woman, either.
Annie (Alison Barry) thinks she’s a selkie. Annie is Syraceuse’s daughter, a plucky, wise-beyond-her-years ten-year-old who rides around in a motorized wheelchair as a result of failing kidneys that have her doing regular sessions with a dialysis machine. A selkie, as you may recall from the 1984 John Sayles movie The Secret of Roan Inish, is a lady seal who can shed her fur coat to become a woman. She has only to slip the sealskin back on to return to her life beneath the sea.
Syraceuse used to be the town drunk and still retains the nickname “Circus” from his stumblebum days. With “no AA chapter in this poxy town,” he relies on confessional visits to the parish priest (Jordan regular Stephen Rea) to keep himself on the wagon. But he dotes on Annie and does what he can to brighten her life. Sometimes he tells her stories, and after his netting of Ondine, he tells Annie about the adventure as a tall tale. But Annie, who is part no-nonsense realist and part childish fabulist, sees through the “once-upon-a-time” trappings, and discerns that there’s a true story at work here.
Ondine is a shy creature. She has made it a condition with Syraceuse that nobody must know of her presence. The fisherman, smitten with her beauty, has agreed, and has tucked her safely away in a remote little cottage he owns. Aside from the stirrings of the tender passion, he has another reason to play by her rules: she’s brought him luck. Where before her arrival the fish avoided him like an oil spill, now they flock into his nets as fast as he can set them. When Syraceuse takes his boat out, Ondine sings in a mysterious language, and the fish practically leap onto his deck.
When Annie meets the exotic creature, it doesn’t take her long to confirm her suspicions that the lady is a selkie. And when Ondine takes her swimming, and finds a mysterious package in the shallow waters, it’s no stretch for the little girl to peg it as the selkie’s sealskin, her ticket back to her natural habitat. Annie has a bit of a hard-knock life; in addition to the disease that will kill her if they can’t find a kidney donor who’s a perfect tissue match, she also lives with Syraceuse’s ex, Maura (Deryla Kirwan), her blowsy drunk of a mother, and Maura’s brutish man (Tony Curran). So the girl needs a bit of magic in her life.
It’s not as easy to see why Syraceuse buys into the selkie theory, if in fact he does. He’s a grown man, albeit one who has probably seen a few fantastic creatures on the order of pink elephants and other such booze-fueled apparitions in his day. But Ondine has brought him luck. His nets and his lobster pots are suddenly brimming, and who is he to look a gift selkie in the mouth? (Of course he does that too).
Where is Jordan going with this? Are we in true fantasy territory, beyond that border where creatures of the imagination can live as real as you and I? Or are we still tethered to a form of what is stubbornly called reality, where some sort of a course correction will be required? The appearance in town of a dark, menacing stranger holds a clue, and an eruption of grim, literal violence will shift the tone.
Some complexities of story will be lost on audiences not tuned to the regional Irish brogue that is the mother tongue of the residents of this little fishing community. Much of the time the dialogue seems to be spoken in a language with which you may have some acquaintance, but no fluency. The broad strokes are clear enough, but many of the details are choked in unfamiliar sounds and cadences.
But you won’t need an interpreter to appreciate Farrell’s sturdy appeal, or Bachleda’s exotic beauty (they met on this movie, and have since produced a son together). And Christopher Doyle’s dark lush photography plucks the green coast of Cork like a harp.
© Text 2010 Jonathan Richards - Filmfreak.be