February 24, 2011

Ondine (2009)

The sea, source of life and nourishment for humanity since the beginning of times, has been the source for countless stories, myths and legends that showcase how deeply tied we are to it. From the Greek sirens to the Japanese Kappa, a wide variety of water spirits have inhabited the imaginations of many cultures; and the fishing villages of Ireland were no exception. The Irish folklore has its very own aquatic nymph, drawn from the ancient Celtic myths: the Selkies, seal ladies that can temporarily become human by removing their seal coat. Mythical creatures present also in the folklore of Scotland, Wales and other Celtic regions; the Selkies have been the source of stories, songs, novels and of course, movies (1994's "The Secret of Roan Inish" being probably the best well known). In 2009, Irish filmmaker Neil Jordan, who has ventured to the realm of fantasy in movies such as "The Company of Wolves" and "Interview with the Vampire"; went back to his Irish roots with "Ondine", a film that took the Selkie legend to modern times.

"Ondine" is the story of Syracuse (Colin Farrell), a recovering-alcoholic Irish fisherman who one day catches a mysterious woman (Alicja Bachleda) in his fishing net. Confused and worried by this event, Syracuse tries to help the nearly-drowned woman, but she seems to present amnesia, being unable to remember her origin. Syracuse takes her home and tries to discover why was she in the sea but the woman, who calls herself Ondine, remains evasive, speaks with a strange accent and asks him to hid her from the world. Syracuse obliges to her request, and keeps her hidden in his grandmother's cottage. Back in the village, Syracuse visits his daughter Annie (Alison Barry), a precocious young girl with failing kidneys and wisdom beyond her years, who lives with Syracuse alcoholic ex-wife Maura (Dervla Kirwan). Suspecting that her father is up to something, Annie discovers Ondine at the cottage, and concludes that she must be one of the mythical Selkie women. Syracuse's luck seems to finally have changed for better, but shadows will rise over the fisherman and the lady he found at the sea.

Taking the Selkie myth to a modern day setting, writer Neil Jordan delivers a tale of romance and fantasy, spiced up with the mystery behind the identity of Ondine. With the coast of his natal Ireland as background, Jordan crafts a story that goes beyond the conventions of romantic melodrama and becomes a meditation on the duality of fantasy and reality. Ondine, with her ethereal beauty and disoriented behavior, is by all accounts a mythical creature of fantasy trapped in the village's reality. And to Annie (and later to Syracuse), she becomes a ray of light in the midst of the hardships they both have faced. Luck and fate are powerful concepts in the film, with Syracuse tormented by guilt, a sense of guilt that still haunts him in the shape of Annie's physical problems and his constant "bad luck". It could be argued that "Ondine" is a story of fantasy versus reality, but it's more about using the fortitude found in fantasy to face reality. Jordan's resolution to the mysteries of Ondine add to that concept, albeit maybe not in an entirely successful way.

Pretty much in tone with the screenplay's theme of fantasy and reality, Jordan creates a film that goes from beautifully shot images of natural beauty to the crude and raw portrait of a poor Irish seaside town. A well-known name in Asian cinema (having worked with Zhang Yimou and in every movie by Wong Kar-Wai), cinematographer Christopher Doyle captures the beauty and the darkness of both environments and creates overwhelming atmospheres that, particularly during the night scenes, convey that sense of fantasy in realism that Jordan was aiming for. Is it a realistic fantasy or a fantastic reality? The line is intentionally blurry as, following Annie and Syracuse, one is lead to wonder if Ondine is really a Selkie, but always with a doubt that prevents from fully accepting it. With class and even a certain tenderness, director Neil Jordan toys with this doubt and this mystery to give new life to the Selkies myth. As the conclusion arrives and the mystery grows, a sudden change of tone takes place that somewhat fails to work completely. But more on that later.

Colin Farrell stars as Syracuse, the cynical and lonely fisherman who desperately fights against his luck to put his life back on track. Farrell delivers a great performance, managing to capture the character's mixture of self-pity and guilt-ridden discomfort. This is a character at odds with himself, and Farrell nails it almost perfectly (he exaggerates a bit with his accent, I must say). There's also great chemistry between him and Polish actress Alicja Bachleda, who plays Ondine. Bachleda's work is effective, yet a tad simplistic, specially in contrast to Farrell's and Barry's. She exudes a powerful presence and an otherworldly beauty that nicely fits her character and makes her a force of nature, wild and untamed. However, she's limited (either by herself or the character) to just be there. The real highlight of the film is without a doubt young Alison Barry, who plays Syracuse's curious and witty daughter Annie. Barry steals every scene she's in, and with natural charm and talent becomes a bright spark of life for the film.

Working like a modern fairy tale during the first two thirds of its runtime, "Ondine" explores its themes with a nice slow pace, giving space to some character development and to build up the mystery surrounding Ondine's origins. However, it abruptly shifts gears during its last third, turning to an unexpectedly darker, noirish path that, while original and consistent with Jordan's themes (reality's darkness rearing its ugly head), it's handled rather clumsily; with a conclusion that feels rushed and poorly crafted. Don't get me wrong, it's not the twist per se what's clumsy (Jordan's writing is actually classy in that aspect), but the way it's handled. The sudden change of pace is so extreme that it even feels as if it had been done for a chapter in a TV series with a need to solve every loose ends quickly before the end. Some extra 15 minutes of runtime probably would had helped things to flow smoother. Nevertheless, this is certainly not something that could ruin entirely the movie, just a detail that makes it feel unsatisfying incomplete.

Despite its problems, Neil Jordan's "Ondine" is a beautiful romantic drama that takes the Selkies myth to craft something new and fresh. The way it handles real life difficulties such as Annie's health problems and Syracuse's alcoholic past is powerful, and the actors playing those roles do live up to the challenge. It's kind of a shame that Jordan's narrative gets lousy and hurried by the time it reaches its conclusion, as it truly has built a charming modern fable before that. Nevertheless, "Ondine" is enjoyable enough to survive that and more and, while probably not exactly on the level that could had reached, it's still a nice effort by its own account. In "Ondine", fantasy inspires hope, the longing for a better life and the actual search for it. Isn't that one of myth's purposes too? Jordan nails it in this beautiful, yet flawed, story.


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