REVIEW: ‘Ondine’

Grade: B+

I have always felt that Colin Farrell is one of those actors who make movies better simply by trying. He doesn’t seem to be completely invested in every performance, but when he is the movie benefits greatly. He has a sense of confidence and poise that can’t be taught in acting school and when he is completely enveloped in a character he never hits a false note.

Ondine, the latest film from writer/director Neil Jordan, gives us just such a performance from Farrell. He lays on the Irish Brogue in a wonderfully honest performance as a man fighting his own solitude. Farrell portrays Syracuse – a fisherman with an alcoholic past and an ill daughter. The townspeople un-affectionately call him “Circus” because his past alcohol use would cause him to “act like a clown.” The very small cast lets Farrell’s masterful subtleties shine as he builds and destroys relationships throughout the film.

Ondine is a very sweet grown-up fairy tale about the use of idealist fantasy to escape the harsh realities of life. Director Neil Jordan and his excellent creative team turn a stark Irish country side into a fantastical setting for the unlikely story to unfold. The script is flawed, but great performances from Farrell and the rest of the cast and a wonderful technical achievement make Ondine a worthwhile trip to the theatre.

The film opens on Syracuse – the lone fisherman on the open sea on a gloomy day – as he I pulling in his nets after trolling for fish. In his net he finds a barely alive woman who he helps to recover and takes in to his home. The woman is an excellent swimmer, is reluctant to be seen by other people, and calls herself “Ondine” which means “woman” from the sea. Syracuse’s daughter, Annie – a bright wheelchair bound girl – believes that the woman is a selkie, which is a mythical seal that transforms into a human when they take off their seal coat.

Ondine and Syracuse develop a close relationship as they fish together and live together for several weeks. Apart from the main relationship, Syracuse faces off with his alcoholic ex-wife and Ondine is being followed by a mysterious man representing both characters’ inability to escape their pasts. The surreal story of the seal woman is presented so matter of factly that the audience doesn’t know exactly what do believe.

Early in the film when Syracuse reveals to his daughter that he has met a water woman, she questions him – “are you sure this isn’t some weird wish fulfillment thing?” The reality of Syracuse’s life – a failed marriage, a dying daughter, near poverty – is so unbearable that the fantasy that has just occurred to him seems too good to be true. The narrative is presented through the protagonists’ lens and never for a moment is it not a completely believable realist fairytale.

The flaws in the script come from some of the misplaced motivations of the characters. This isn’t the type of movie that needs to be dissected for the truth in each line of dialogue. In fact, the script purposely doesn’t go out of its way to explain itself, instead letting the viewer piece together the fairytale on their own. However, in the final act many of the conflicts were created and resolved without much explanation. Syracuse falls off the wagon and turns to alcohol without much motivation, leaving me wanting more from that bit of character development.

The performances, however, more than make up for the flaws in the story. As Syracuse, Farrell mumbles and speaks with muted tones and a constantly winced expression to show the solitude and pain of his existence. Alicja Bachleda, in one of her only English speaking roles, nails the sense of detachment that Ondine feels in her new environment. One of the films sweetest performances comes from Alison Barry as Annie, the young girl who has a lot of fight despite what the world has thrown at her. Her dialogue is far too intelligent for a girl her age, but she makes each line believable.

Master cinematographer Christopher Doyle frames the Irish countryside with marvelous expertise. He frequently puts images of solo objects in wide frame to emphasize the solitude, such as a broken down cabin against an expansive green hill, or an old fishing boat alone in a bay. The folk music soundtrack by Kjartan Sveinsson bring a spirited life to the many dialogue-free moments and combine with the images on screen for a wonderful visceral experience.

Bottom Line: The script is flawed, but great performances from Farrell and the rest of the cast and a wonderful technical achievement make Ondine a worthwhile trip to the theatre.

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  • Kathleen

    Since this hasn’t been commented on since it was written in June, I may be whistling into the wind here, but your review–and the film–invite commentary–so here’s mine:

    This was my first exposure to Colin Farrell–but I’ve seen plenty of fishermen, and he nailed that quality that so many have of being more at home on a boat than anywhere else. It appears that a fishing town is a fishing town, no matter the ocean, and the film really caught that feel as well.

    As far as your comments regarding his binge, I respectfully disagree with you. The motivation for his getting drunk is simple–he’s been white-knuckle sober for the whole movie up to that point–the question is not so much “Why did he get drunk?” but rather, how had he manged to hang on to his sobriety for as long as he did. He’s facing challenges, he’s been the laughingstock of the town (Circus), and he’s not made much of a success of fishing. He quit drinking but doesn’t have much of a support system or the skills for staying sober. His ex- knows how to push his buttons, and when he takes that drink, it’s with the air of one who always knew he would someday–just succumbing to the inevitable.

    I also disagreed about the Annie dialog–again, respectfully so. I’ve known kids with disabilities, and many of them are old before their time, wise beyond their years. There was nothing jarring to me about that performance, because I’ve seen kids be just that articulate and insightful. However, I did have a problem with her overnight recovery from a kidney (or two!) transplant. I had a hard time believing she’d be out of the hospital in a few days, and that her father would leave her on her own to recuperate while he launced a rescue. Or so I see it.

    I missed a lot of the dialog because of the sound quality, and would like to hear more of it.

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