Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Film Review: Ondine

There's nothing quite like a good fable. And on the outside, Ondine has all the aspects of such a thing: timeless, charming and innocent, it tells the tale of a fisherman eking out an existence in a coastal Irish village. Syracuse has been off the booze that destroyed his marriage for a few years now, but sobriety hasn't transformed his life like some catch-all cure. He remains a poor and lonely man, struggling against his demons, his daughter the only thing that keeps him on the straight and narrow track. But Annie is stricken with kidney disease, and her alcoholic mother, whom she lives with, has taken up with a dodgy Scottish bloke. Aren't they all?

Things take a turn when one day, while out on the boat trawling through the ocean for his daily fish, Syracuse finds - much to his surprise - a beautiful girl in his nets. When she comes to she introduces herself as Ondine, and insists that he not take her to the hospital. Grudgingly, Syracuse hides Ondine away in his late mother's ramshackle cottage, but Annie, inquisitive little creature that she is, soon discovers her father's secret: a selkie, she believes; a mythical seal-creature who has left her skin in the sea to spend seven years and seven tears on Syracuse.


As Annie, newcomer Alison Barry is lumbered with the larger part of Ondine's mythical underpinnings. Having checked out all the local library's books on the subject, she acts as the mouthpiece for all the fantastic aspects of the film, explaining the history and practices of selkies - a thankless role, you might think, yet Barry steals the show. This little girl is a revelation: heartbreakingly brave during dialysis sessions, wonderfully witty in her exchanges with Ondine and a smart foil for Colin Farrell's struggling fisherman. She is singularly the most impressive aspect of Neil Jordan's latest film.

Which isn't to say Ondine doesn't have a whole lot more going for it. Farrell, too, impresses, turning in a more low-key performance than he's become known for without losing that quirky charisma that makes him such a pleasure to watch. Stephen Rea is hilariously dry as Syracuse's embittered priest. As the selkie herself, Alicja Bachleda brings a quality of otherworldliness to Ondine that, were it lacking, would rob the film of much of its charm; she has a certain chemistry with Farrell, of course, though everyone's favourite Irish actor carries the load. Bachleda only truly sparkles around Alison Barry, the life and soul of this picture.

For the most part, Neil Jordan, directing from his own spare script, captures the gently devastating spirit of Ondine perfectly. This isn't his first brush with the fantastic, of course. In The Company of Wolves and Interview with the Vampire he proved himself up to the task of establishing an authentic tone, and he carries off the more subdued atmosphere of Ondine all the way through to the last act, when things sadly take an ill-advised turn. From the get-go you get the sense Syracuse will have to confront his demons at some point, but when the face-off occurs, it feels abrupt, and at odds with all that has come before. And then Jordan goes and explains the mechanics of his fable, diminishing with every unnecessary word the tantalising mystery of it all.

Luckily, Ondine recovers some of its allure in its last moments. Jordan doesn't quite squander all that he's worked towards, and his collaborators are such an accomplished bunch that even at its lowest ebb, Ondine is a beautiful thing to behold. The cinematography throughout is exquisite, the timeless landscapes of green and grey a wonder of the natural world composed and shot just so; and the score... oh my. Between Sigur Ros, the woeful, wilting tones of one-time Damien Rice backing vocalist Lisa Hannigan and a host of others, Ondine sounds as out of this world as it looks.

I've been looking forward to Ondine since its first appearance on the festival circuit late last year, so I'm chuffed to bits to see so many of my hopes for it realised. The intrusion of reality on a narrative so purposefully set apart from the undiscerning brutality of the world rather takes the edge off any proclamations of unqualified greatness, but there is, at the end of the day, a great deal about this film to love: from its restrained tone to Alison Barry's stellar performance, from its unforgettable aesthetics to their superlative aural accompaniment. This is a fantastic fable, all told, momentarily misguided but otherwise breathtaking from end to end.

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