Mark Reviews Movies


2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Neil Jordan

Cast: Colin Farrell, Alicja Bachleda, Alison Barry, Dervla Kirwan, Stephen Rea, Tony Curran, Emil Hostina

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for some violence, sensuality and brief strong language)

Running Time: 1:51

Release Date: 6/4/10 (limited); 6/11/10 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | June 10, 2010

The local priest, the same man who acts as his makeshift AA sponsor (so small is the town that there is no branch there), tells the fisherman hero, "Mystery is easy; happiness you have to work at." It is the distinction between the blissful ignorance of living a fantasy or the sometimes difficult task of finding joy in the harsh truth that the priest is trying to lay upon the fisherman, and it's a struggle that is tangible in the structure and execution of Ondine.

Writer/director Neil Jordan cannot quite get a grip on which is better for his characters, the fairy tale or the reality. For this is a story of a woman literally fished from the sea, of the idyllic, beautiful Irish coast, of "once upon a time," and "happily ever after." It is also one of alcoholism, kidney failure, haunting regrets, death, and the degradation of a woman's humanity.

To reconcile these elements and maintain the blurry line between fantasy and reality, Jordan imposes upon his characters bittersweet twists of fate and coincidences of convenience that make the ultimate revelation of the truth of the scenario a dishonest letdown.

The fisherman is named Syracuse (Colin Farrell), a reference to the place where a Greek water nymph turned into a fountain, and the people around town dub him "Circus," a reference to the clownish tendency for things to go wrong in his life, in the past, due to his drinking. He has since been sober for two years, after returning home from a night of drinking to discover his daughter Annie (Alison Barry) in a bad state and his now ex-wife Maura (Dervla Kirwan) in a drunken stupor.

When Annie was diagnosed with kidney failure and in need of a transplant, he decided to stop drinking. Someone needed to have their faculties about them around the house.

The movie opens with Syracuse pulling a young woman (Alicja Bachleda) out of the water with the rest of his day's catch. He revives her, and she awakens, begging that he not bring her to a hospital. She doesn't want anyone else to see her, so he brings her to his mother's old cabin. She says her name is Ondine, like the water elemental of mythology.

She sings in a language he has never heard before, and Syracuse's catch is more plentiful than ever. He tells Annie a story like his own with Ondine, and she recognizes the old tale of the selkie, a Scottish legend of a seal that can become human by shedding its skin. Surely, this woman of her father's story is one of them.

Thus begins the riddle of Ondine's true nature. Is she a human with a secret or a seal with a skin to hide? Syracuse only knows what he sees. He goes out fishing before Ondine's arrival and comes up short; with her, he makes a killing. If anything, Ondine is good luck. Annie only knows what she reads, and she checks out every book on selkies the library has to offer. She knows a selkie can choose to stay on land for seven years if it buries its skin, live with a human of its choosing for that time unless its sea-faring mate returns to claim it back, and grant a wish.

The two are willing to believe whatever the myth has to offer, and Ondine, the quiet, enigmatic type, is more than happy to oblige. She and Annie go into the water (Annie never learned to swim) and discover Ondine's skin. Ondine wishes Annie better health, and the fates collide to bring it to her. A strange outsider (Emil Hostina) appears in town and starts asking around about Ondine, and Annie dreams of him emerging from the water. One scene has Ondine and the man meeting, and the dialogue is a hodgepodge of nonspecifics.

Jordan, it seems, must play these tricks with us, otherwise his mystery unravels quickly. They feel like hoaxes, especially when set against the movie's more honest scenes. The discussions between Syracuse and the priest (Jordan regular Stephen Rea) are at that level, as is another small moment between Annie and Maura's boyfriend (Tony Curran) in which he helps fix her motorized wheelchair.

The climactic revelation of Ondine's true self is almost destined to fail after Jordan's dance with the fanciful, and it does in a contrived (How does Annie, confined to a wheelchair and unable to swim, manage to hide the MacGuffin where she does anyway?) instead of shattering fashion. The reason of burdening the possibility of fantasy with reality is clear. Ondine goes further to insult the reality with fantastic contrivance.

Copyright 2010 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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