TIFF 09 Review: Ondine
Director: Neil Jordan (The Company of Wolves, We’re No Angels, Michael Collins, Interview with the Vampire, Breakfast on Pluto, The Brave One)
Screenplay: Neil Jordan
Producers: Ben Browning, James Flynn, Neil Jordan
Starring: Colin Farrell, Alicja Bachleda, Alison Barry, Stephen Rea, Dervla Kirwan
MPAA Rating: 14-A (UK)
Running time: 111 min.
A craftsman film maker, Neil Jordan almost always know how to deliver. Not always with plot or characters (though that’s obviously still a part of it), but quite often with tone, mood and set. One could argue that with his latest, Ondine, the gorgeous locale off the coast of his home country of Ireland plays just as big of a role in bringing this film together as any of the principal cast members. To say the film is breathtakingly gorgeous would be quite the understatement. From opening to closing shot, Ireland is showcased profoundly in all of its wonder, glory and mysteries in this adult fairy tale of love found and lost and found.
Syraceuse (Collin Farrell) is a simple man living a simple life as a fisherman off the coast of Ireland. Sharing responsibility with his estranged wife of their special needs daughter, who is undergoing kidney dialysis, Syraceuse has given up the bottle and though still a bit on the irresponsible side, he is a genuinely caring man and only yearns to make an easier life for his struggling daughter. While trolling the waters for fish one day, Syraceuse nets a beautiful young woman who appears dead. With some resuscitation and a little luck, Ondine is revived; though apparently with no memory and no wish to be seen by anyone. With her safely aboard his boat, Ondine inexplicably brings about near impossible good luck for Syraceuse and he allows her to stay at his dead mother’s cottage on the sea side. As the mysterious luck continues and more and more evidence mounts, Syraceuse and his daughter, Anna, concoct a story that maybe Ondine is actually some sort of sea creature or fairy and of course a love begins to blossom (both as a companion and a mother for Anna). Reality and fantasy are soon blurred and all involved in this story begin to realize who and what they are and what they are not.
Maybe it’s the on location homecoming for Farrell, but rarely is he in this top form in an understated yet captivating performance. Though playing an everyman, he emotes such raw feeling with genuine heartfelt moments the likes of which we’ve not seen since The New World. Keeping up this kind of charisma and versatility could indeed one day get Farrell into an Oscar post-party with a statue in hand.
Like The New World‘s introduction of Q’orianka Kilcher, audiences were treated to new comer (for North Americans) Alicja Bachleda as the beautiful Ondine. While the acting prowess doesn’t quite match Farrell’s, she certainly has presence and carries the screen with grace and ability. Bringing a solid persona to the character of Ondine that few would pull off as well, this writer very much looks forward to more from Ms. Bachleda and from the moment we see her exiting the water for the first time, I’m convinced we will see more of her; and likely soon.
Quality child actors seem to have become easier to come by over the past decade, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less impressive when one delivers and nearly steals the show. Young Alison Barry attempts to do just that in her role that is uncharacteristic of a ten year-old with sass, intelligence and courage. Much of the enjoyment delivered to the audience in this screening is brought about by this young (potential) starlet.
The story weaved here is quite the illusory web of fantasy meets reality. We’re never sure what to believe as the story progresses. Like Finding Neverland, we want to believe, but as adults we know if it’s too good to be true then it probably is. Jordan seems to understand this and teases us with “what-ifs” and comforting possibilities and impossibilities.
Though the country side is gorgeous and the concept of the story is intriguing and even captivating at times, that isn’t to say that it is carried out flawlessly. Because the film takes place in a small town, much of the story time is devoted to dealing with townsfolk and the gossipy nature of such a culture. There are other inconsequentials to the story as well that aren’t completely necessary and don’t quite go anywhere (such as an alcoholic step father). There is also a “wtf” moment in which the daughter, who’s been clearly shown to be relegated to a wheelchair or carried everywhere suddenly gets up from the chair and walks. While that’s not really relevant to the story and doesn’t matter in the slightest, it was quite the surprise and was played off as though it should’ve been obvious. When in fact it was distracting and had me scratching my head for a moment. Again, while not important it’s an example of a few of these head scratching moments as though I’ve completely missed something – though I’m sure I didn’t.
A plot develops later in the film that brings the outside world into this tiny community and isn’t quite as sinister, dangerous or as darkly compelling as it could have been. We never feel like Ondine or her new “family” is in too much danger – or at least not enough to get very worked up about it – and the story takes a turn that seems too implausible for real life and too generic and structured for a fairy-tale.
In the end I was left with a pleasant feeling and general appreciation for the film and a caring for all the characters that were important but I was never moved as deeply as the film would like to hope I would be. Technically well crafted, designed, acted and showcased, this is a project any film maker would be proud to call their own, it just didn’t have the emotional sizzle that it needed. It’s a slow burn of a picture that sparkles a little at the end, but never really pops to make it a favorite on the year. I’m no screen writer so I can’t say exactly what it needed. It certainly had charm, heart, beauty and talent (M. Night Shyamalan might want to look here next time he decides to do a literal “fish out of water” tale); it just ceased to amaze. Which is quite honestly what I’ve come to find I get from Neil Jordan time and time again. Still, I’m happy to recommend the film and enjoyed it nearly on aesthetics and performances alone.