Director: Neil Jordan
Ireland/USA, 2010, 111mins, rated 12A
Screening: Paramount screening room, 2 March 2010

Neil Jordan, like his fellow British contemporaries Alan Parker and Stephen Frears, has moved back and forth between Hollywood and Britain making dramas and fantasies of varying success for years. With his latest, Ondine, he mixes all these elements to create a charming rural Irish socio-realist drama mixed with a Hollywood-esque fairytale fantasy. The results, while on the whole quite enjoyable, are a little shaky.

Colin Farrell plays Syracuse, an ex-alcoholic fisherman in a small Irish coastal village. Caught between his ragingly drunk estranged wife (played with wonderful wobbly authenticity by Dervla Kirwan) and their bright but wastingly ill daughter, he lives a subdued and solitary life, beaten down by his situation and drunken past and all but cut-off from the rest of the heavy-drinking town. Then, at the end of yet another lonely and unsuccessful day out on his trawler, he pulls in his net to finds he’s caught a strange but beautiful woman.

From here Jordan mixes a tale of hardship and rural Irish working class life with a mermaid fairytale mystery, using the character of the daughter as the catalyst for the fantasy. The mermaid idea (although actually it’s not a mermaid but a selkie – a mythological seal that can shed its skin and become human, according to Scots and Irish folklore) is quite well handled, being mostly inferred through the wheelchair-bound girl’s active imagination, encouraged by the mysterious new arrival and tolerated by those around.

This balance of reality and fairytale is pretty well handled for the most part. Jordan has taken care to construct an appropriate scenario that’s congruous with classic fairytale lore. Thus we have the timeless coastal village setting (evocatively filmed by Christopher Doyle, who captures rural Ireland in all its craggy green wonderment), the lonely fisherman, the sickly child, the drunk mother, and the beautiful, mysterious woman arriving out of nowhere… Jordan even combines elements of Celtic and northern European folklores (selkies also have Icelandic and Faroese origins, while Ondines are water spirits of German mythology) to give the fantasy an appropriate timelessness and a whiff of good old maritime superstition.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, Farrell’s character takes in his strange catch (who seems not to remember who she is or where she’s from, even though the strong Eastern European accent should be a bit of a giveaway) and while he gradually falls for this beautiful and exotic creature – played by the lovely Alicja Bachleda – his luck starts to change. As the drama unfolds, this change in fortunes radiates outwards, not always for the better, and builds towards an explosive, if somewhat clumsy, climax.

Alison Barry, Colin Farrell and Alicja Bachleda

Concerning the power of perception and the importance of faith, luck and self-belief, Ondine is a well written and well made film that’s interesting enough to resonate with most people, while daft enough to provide some fun escapism. Drowning in a sea of self-loathing, Syracuse is thrown a lifeline when Ondine enters his life. Because she doesn’t judge him on his past and believes in his goodness, so he starts to believe in himself. And when you respect yourself and those around you – the film would have us believe – good things will come your way. It’s a simple message, but quite sweet in its simplicity.

Behind the drama it also feels that Jordan’s got some things to say about his countrymen. That Ondine works at all is thanks in part to a certain rural Irish proclivity towards superstition. After years of toiling in hardship and isolation, perhaps it’s easy to jump at fantasy when something unknown enters your life. To this small and close-knit town, the arrival of the exotic Ondine is both curious and suspicious – a diversion to the everyday, yet also something to be feared.

And in this respect, Ondine raises a more profound and modern concern: that of Ireland’s ongoing immigration troubles. While it’s not specified exactly where Ondine is set (although judging by the accents it’s southern Ireland), there have been a number of stories in the last couple of years concerning vicious attacks on central European immigrants in Belfast, culminating in around 100 Romanians having to leave the country after further attacks in late 2009.

Small, insular communities have always struggled to assimilate foreigners into their fold. Closed minded intolerance and fear of the ‘the other’ nearly always leads to misunderstanding. Where in this past this bred superstition – and over time mythological fantasy (one theory behind ‘selkies’ is the sightings of Finnish boatmen, who tended to wear seal skins to keep them warm and dry) – today it mostly leads to violence. If Jordan posits a subtext of tolerance through understanding in Ondine then it’s admirable, if fairly subtle.

1 comment:

  1. I went to see this last night at our beautiful art deco cinema (The Rex in Berkhamsted) It wasn't a film I'd have chosen to see (not keen on Mr Farrell) but it was a lovely, quirky little film. Perfect for a tuesday night! It was like flicking through the pages of a Toast catalogue. I'm now craving a visit to the seaside.
    Off to see Welcome to the Sticks (Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis) tonight. Have seen it before and laughed so hard. If you get the chance, you'd love it.
    Hope all is well with you x


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