ONDINE carefully weaves a disarming spell that builds and holds until the concluding scenes, when it breaks that fantasy membrane with a sudden, rather sad comedown back into reality. It makes sense from a practical point to do so, but it does regrettably let some air out of the fable it spent 90% of the running time setting up. Certainly no reason to skip it, though, as the able cast, atmospheric locale and quietly forceful yet fragile nature of the wistful story and its wounded people take up a residence that you’d be comfortable extending.
Independent fisherman ‘Syracuse’ (Colin Farrell) gets more than a surprise when he hauls in his net one day, the waters off his Irish coastal town yielding not a cod or lobster but a young woman (Alicja Bachleda). Bedraggled but still alive, she calls herself ‘Ondine’, and she fervently wishes to remain away from any other locals. Syracuse allows her to stay at his humble abode. His curious little girl ‘Annie’ (Alison Barry) becomes convinced that the sweet, attractive, mysterious Ondine is a selkie. Is she?
The relationships that develop—Syracuse and Ondine, Ondine and Annie—intersect with others—his ex-wife, her boyfriend, the local priest, and a serious-looking guy who shows up inquiring about this new lady who seems to have literally emerged from the sea.
Written & directed by Neil Jordan, the story and people reel you in, surely and steadily, backed by evocative location shooting in and around Castletownbere, Ireland. Fine cast excels— Farrell, 33 here, quiet and sympathetic, as always on target conveying decency mixed with weakness, strength with hurt; newcomer Barry, a 9-year-old natural who’d never acted before, smart enough (and so well-directed by Jordan) to not let precocity cancel charm; and especially the beguiling Bachleda, 25 at the time. She’d been acting (and singing) in Poland since she was a child. Thanks to the actors, the script and Jordan’s handling, we grow to like these characters and hope for their welfare.
Made at a cost of $12,000,000, it barely made a ripple in 2009, with a gross of just $1,777,019, but, sure as there are selkies who swim among us, it’s one of those sleepers that will benefit from a long afterlife of discovery on our home screens.
With Dervla Kirwan (the alcoholic, bitter ex-wife), Tony Curran (her brusque boyfriend), Stephen Rea (as the priest, his tenth time working for Jordan), and Emil Hostina (the suspicious stranger). Poignant use is made of the song “Braille”, sung by Lisa Hannigan. 111 minutes.