Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
July 2010

Catch of the year

Fisherman gets more than he bargained for in Neil Jordan's warm, moody neo-fairy tale, 'Ondine'

Magnolia Pictures
Director: Neil Jordan
Screenplay: Neil Jordan
Starring: Colin Farrell, Alicja Bachleda, Alison Barry, Stephen Rea, Emil Hostina, Tony Curran and Dervla Kirwan
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 51 minutes
Now playing in limited release and available on VOD
(out of four)

The real mystery in a Neil Jordan film is never who did what, or when, or where, or what's around the corner or what's going to happen next. The real mystery is character. His films are populated by people whose very nature is elusive. They are enigmas, facades, masks, lies; uncovering those masks - or discovering that we can't - is as captivating and challenging as the characters themselves.

Exactly how Jordan chooses to explore these characters depends largely on genre - be it the gory transformation of man into beast in the colorfully allegorical The Company of Wolves, the surrealist embellishments of the young boy's psyche in The Butcher Boy or the way shadowy pasts collide in the neo-noir masterpieces The Crying Game and Mona Lisa. The Irish writer-director has gracefully shifted between styles and genres for the last three decades, but his ability to delve into the mysteries of character has remained constant.

His latest film, Ondine, is a modestly scaled character piece set in a small fishing town in Ireland. It centers around a fisherman named Syracuse (Colin Farrell) who finds a beautiful woman (Alicja Bachleda) in his net one day - a woman who, in typical Jordan fashion, may not be exactly what she appears to be. She goes by Ondine, but is otherwise secretive about who (or what) she is and where she came from.

Syracuse's daughter, Annie - played with uncommon depth by a scene-stealing Alison Barry - convinces herself that Ondine is a selkie, a mystical sea creature that can shed its seal-like skin for seven years. Ondine is noncommittal on the matter, of course, but Annie is more than happy to fill in all the details and connect the dots for herself. Syracuse goes along with it, because why not? Ondine certainly seems to have fulfilled the selkie requirement of bringing luck and good fortune with her.

At least for the time being.

Jordan has always had a gift for combining gritty reality with the bizarre, the macabre and the fantastical, and here his filmmaking shows a gentle touch. Aided by the great cinematographer Christopher Doyle's moody visuals, he creates a light, warm sense of magic realism that begins to feel more poignant as the mysteries of Ondine's identity begin to catch up with her.

There is a serene quality to both the old-fashioned Irish setting and the relationships between the principal characters, and that serenity takes on an even deeper feeling when the proverbial darkness begins to set in.

Ondine is, to put it simply, a lovely film, with a sweetness that may surprise some Jordan fans, and bittersweetness and wit that will not. Many of the film's best scenes are moments of intimate conversation. Consider the great sequence when Syracuse and his daughter drive alongside one another - he in his car, she in her motorized chair - and talk in a kind of transparent coded language about what's really going on, under the guise of a bedtime story he's been telling her that just so happens to parallel Ondine's sudden appearance into their lives.

Or consider the awkward warmth between the town's local priest (played by Jordan regular Stephen Rea) and Syracuse, who uses the priest as a sort of therapist and confidante, but isn't so interested in the religion part.

Those scenes, and the entire relationship between Syracuse and his daughter, could have been played for the kind of cloying cuteness that so often finds its way into cinematic fairy tales. But Jordan finds just the right touch, balancing the lightness with the dark.

The film's storytelling gets a bit muddy in the middle - at least in comparison to the effortless charm of the earlier scenes - but manages to keep a grip on itself and conclude the story in strong fashion. Ondine is a return to form for Jordan, a filmmaker who I've been a fan of for years, but whose last outing was the woefully miscalculated The Brave One. This, on the other hand, rarely steps wrong, and it just may be his best film in more than a decade.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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