Set in a small, rural, Irish fishing village, Neil Jordan’s Ondine (2009) is a romantic drama about a fisherman Syracuse (Colin Farrell) who pulls a woman from the sea in his net. Both Syracuse and his daughter, Annie (Alison Barry), come to believe that the woman who calls herself Ondine is a Selke, a seal-woman.
As the film progresses in its romantic narrative, the lore around the Selke is revealed, usually through Annie who has done her research on the shape-shifting creatures. If Ondine (Alicja Bachleda) is a Selke than she has to stay on land until she can find her seal coat, and if she finds it, she can choose to bury it and stay with the fisherman for seven years, after crying seven tears. This would be good as the fringe dweller and charming Syracuse (Circus) could use a beautiful lover about the house—and on the boat. Ondine’s singing seems to bring Syracuse good luck when fishing. However, of pressing importance is: if Ondine is a Selke, than she can grant a wish. And Annie could really use that wish.*
Annie** is dying, suffering from kidney failure and in need of a tissue match. She gets around in a wheel-chair, an explorer. But she is no delicate flower in the harsh landscape of her home. She is a survivor, quick with the big words, a reader, quite practical. And yet Annie is still a child, vulnerable–and hopeful. In a story where everyone is trying to find their legs, Annie finds hers in the sea.
Thematically, life is found in the sea; comes from it. There is the sustenance and the industry, of course. And like, for Ondine who she claims it brought death, she sees it also as a source of re-birth. Her romance with Syracuse is a new start for her. Salvation is sought and found in the sea.
The mysterious (close-mouthed) Ondine has a past, whether the characters or audience believes she is Selke or no. Does she have a Selke husband who wants her back? Did she have domestic troubles in her underwater realm, which caused her to run away? If she isn’t a Selke, where does she come from and how did she come to be in Syracuse’s fishing net? The past haunts the new beginnings, rising up out of the dark depths of the sea, the bottle, the village, the confessional… Such are the darker aspects of the tale.
The film’s narrative is a bit difficult to follow at times, a bit choppy about the middle. I had a hard time at moments understanding what an actor was saying. Partly it was the soundtrack***, primarily it was the quick, clipped exchanges or emotionally charged Irish accents. I should have put on the subtitles—good thing there were gestures and Farrell, at least, can emote quite convincingly. There was also the problem of seeing the film. It was very dark for spans and I would recommend a good dark room and a television that can translate low-to-no lighting photography. Besides these frustrations the film has its charm. A fairytale set amidst the grit of a poor, rural fishing village with its enchanting vistas.
The charm I found in Neil Jordan’s tale is how it begins as a fairytale come to life and ends with how it is actually life that becomes a fairytale. Ondine meets the varying expectations of the Lore, even as the story begins to shifts and harsh reality brings the return of dark lighting. With the shift, comes the lovely reversal in thought, that fairytales are created out of life (not life is created out of a fairytale). As the mystery behind Ondine is revealed, so is the origin behind the fairytale. (Neil Jordan’s fairytale). Ondine looks at how tales find their origin in the human condition, in human desires and human difficulties. How senseless events, out of which miracles might be found, find explanation in a Selke’s wish.
And yet Ondine does not discard how the power of suggestion/belief in a fairytale can be transformative. Bachleda’s character is empowered by Syracuse and Annie’s belief in her. When lore and life become dangerously mixed near the end of the film, Ondine embraces her role as wish-fulfiller, for herself (as Syracuse desired). And when lore and life are not so dangerously mingled at the end, the Selke is granted her citizenship, a foreigner finding a new home in a other form (in the only way seemingly available to her).
Ondine suggests that fairytale stories do not just occur once, a long time ago. It is as Syracuse tells his daughter about his encounter with Ondine as a story that begins “Once upon a time” and she wonders why such stories should always begin that way. As if such a tale has only happened once, to someone else, a long time ago and far far away. As if life, or fairytales, happen to someone else. Ondine returns lore to its human origins –without robbing us of a fairytale ending.
**Annie is a bit other-worldly herself. She is a bit of a Little Mermaid, highly inquisitive, a bit of an Alice, “curiouser and curiouser,” as both are known to say.
*** sigur rós fans will appreciate the use of the band’s music here.
director/writer Neil Jordan
Produced by Ben Browning, James Flynn, Neil Jordan
Starring Colin Farrell, Alicja Bachleda
Music by Kjartan Sveinsson (who is a member of Sigur Rós)
Cinematography Christopher Doyle
Editing by Tony Lawson
Studio Wayfare Entertainment, Little Wave, Octagon Films
111 minutes, PG-13
as of the date of this post, Ondine is available for streaming on Netflix.
viewed as a part of the Once Upon a Time Challenge (V)