blogging by Andrew Wickliffe

Ondine (2009, Neil Jordan)

Ondine is very committed to the bit. The film opens with Irish owner-operator fisherman Colin Farrell bringing a woman up in his nets. A beautiful woman. She seems very confused to be breathing air and doesn’t tell him very much about herself. Alicja Bachleda plays the woman. She refuses to go to a hospital, and instead, Farrell puts her up at his dead mother’s waterfront cottage. I kept wondering if there was electricity, but the film deftly ignores that issue time and again. Lots of Ondine is writer and director Jordan deftly ignoring things or even distracting from them. Usually, he’s distracting from the very flat expository dialogue. If it weren’t for Farrell being lovable, Bachleda being charming, and Alison Barry (as Farrell’s tragically ill but precocious daughter) being adorable, Ondine would be in real trouble. Jordan can get away with a lot thanks to Kjartan Sveinsson’s music and Christopher Doyle’s photography, but only the actors make that script happen.

Well, the actors and editor Tony Lawson’s cutting. Ondine is always on the move. Jordan and Doyle are shooting with digital video, and they’re able to leverage the inherent truthiness of the format with Doyle’s succulent lighting. The little seafront town is gray, and the muted green is vibrant, teeming with life. It’s the perfect setting for a modern fable about a fisherman (Farrell), a selkie (Bachleda), and his kid, Barry, who immediately loves the idea of a land-sea romance. Farrell’s a dry alcoholic who used to be the town drunk. His ex-wife, Dervla Kirwan, is still a drunk (she dumped him for sobering up) but has custody of Barry because kids say with their moms in Ireland. Kirwan’s got a new boyfriend, Tony Curran, who’s a potentially dangerous prick. We know he’s a prick because he’s mainly from Barry’s perspective, and she’s uneasy around him.

But he’s also a jerk to her dad. Ditto Kirwan. Jordan doesn’t have much in the way of dialogue going for Ondine, but he’s got it absolutely layered with angst. Barry spends most of her time in a wheelchair because of failing kidneys. The other kids don’t exactly bully her, but they also don’t really leave her alone, creating these parallels to Farrell, who everyone treats dismissively. Even the town priest, Stephen Rea. Rea’s an adorable cameo. Farrell’s not religious but uses the confessional for his AA since there are no meetings nearby. Except Rea’s never run an AA, Farrell’s never been, so they both wing it.

Of course, Bachleda sees Farrell differently than everyone else. And he’s got to balance that different and welcome kind of attention with his responsibilities for Barry, who basically gets to school on her own, but then Kirwan lets Farrell do the rest so she and Curran can get drunk.

Besides the character relationships, which manage to shine even with the clipped banter dialogue—Farrell and Barry are like a comedy duo back and forth at each other, Farrell and Bachleda are a guarded flirtation where it’s unclear how much they understand each other, then everyone else is just hurling abusive one-liners at Farrell. But thanks to the acting and Lawson’s cutting, it’s okay. And when there are big character moments, they’re always a success, and they never let up on the bit. Is Kirwan a mermaid or not? Farrell’s not even sure she’s real, and she won’t let him get anyone else for outside verification; she only wants him to see her, which turns out to be part of the legend. Because Farrell tells Barry all about it, framing it as a fairytale he’s made up. Barry’s engaged–apparently Farrell’s never told anywhere near an exciting story before—and starts doing research into the legends, which then informs the audience (and Farrell). Jordan only worries about being effective; obvious never matters. Especially not with the digital video realism.

Great performances from Farrell, Bachleda, Barry, and Rea. Kirwan and Curran are both good, but they’re not the good guys in the fairy tale. The only other significant supporting part is Emil Hostina. He’s real good.

Jordan’s direction is strong. Occasionally uneven, like he can’t figure out what to do with a shot once he’s been able to do it with video. Doyle’s lighting keeps it smooth, ditto Lawson’s cuts, and then Sveinsson’s music. Ondine looks and sounds great.

It’s a particular kind of delightful.

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