"Ondine" is so good it hurts. From potentially incompatible materials -- mermaid tale, crime yarn, humorous family drama and a large serving of romance -- Irish writer/director Neil Jordan has created a beautifully realized fable about love and all its attendant mysteries.
It begins as a whopper of a fish story. Struggling trawler owner Syracuse (Colin Farrell) asks his 10-year-old daughter, "Anything strange and wonderful?" each time they meet. So when the reformed alcoholic pulls a ravishing woman from the sea in his net, he's open-minded enough to believe she's a lucky near-suicide or asylum seeker. Young Annie (Alison Barry), a plucky kidney patient in need of a miracle, takes her dad's new friend for a selkie, a sea nymph who can grant a human a wish or two before returning to the ocean. Ondine (Polish-Mexican stunner Alicja Bachleda) offers up few details in her exotically accented English, and scurries to stay out of sight of the townspeople and coastal patrols.
Syracuse has extraordinary luck when she's onboard -- Ondine's singing seems to fill his nets with prized salmon and lobsters -- and he begins to believe that this kind, intelligent beauty might charm his hardscrabble life as well. But what of the menacing stranger who is searching the town? "Curiouser and curiouser," as well-read Annie often says.
This is no homogenized "Splash" retread. Jordan mischievously shuffles together mundane realism and flashes of possible magic, adroitly keeping us off-kilter and unsure of what's afoot. Until the final reel sorts things out, "Ondine" can be read as a hopeful romantic allegory or a human trafficking thriller heading toward tragedy. The pleasure of the film, beyond Jordan's delicious powers of obfuscation, is found in the captivating, wonderfully acted characters. Farrell shines as a not-quite-no-account turning his life around; his scenes with Barry are little jewels of teasing affection and his longing for Bachleda is a sharp portrait of a man tiptoeing around good fortune he doesn't believe will last.
This is a fairy story for grownups and toughminded children. There are flashes of cruelty and violence here, but more of it stems from frustration, weakness and misunderstanding than from true malice. As in real life and the best fiction, there are few purebred villains or spotless heroes.
Photographed in lyrical Irish grays and greens by ace cinematographer Chris Doyle, and eerily scored by Kjartan Sveinsson, "Ondine" is as sensually haunting as it is emotionally satisfying.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186