Thursday, September 17, 2009


(Special Presentations)
(Ireland/USA, 2009, 111 minutes)
Written by: Neil Jordan
Directed by: Neil Jordan
Cast: Colin Farrell, Alison Barry, Alicja Bachelda, Tony Curran, Stephen Rea

It would be a bit too glib to say this was a great film the first time around when it was called “The Secret Of Roan Inish”, but while it certainly can’t be ignored that Neil Jordan’s newest bears more than a passing similarity to John Sayles’1994 fable, “Ondine” is a unique and highly personal effort from the versatile filmmaker, who returned to his roots in Irish history and literature out of boredom and frustration with the 2007 WGA strike. If there can be two movies about 19th century magicians, why not a pair about Gaelic seal people?

When loner fisherman Syraceuse, (Colin Farrell) finds that his catch of the day is a young woman (Alicja Bachelda) who has miraculously survived some extended time unconscious in the water, his first impulse is to take her to a hospital in the village of Castletownbere. But she pleads for anonymity, so, suspecting she may be a refugee, agrees to let her hide out in his deceased mother’s home until she’s recuperated. Syraceuse incorporates this remarkable turn of events into an off-the-cuff story to entertain his daughter Annie (Alison Barry) during one of her dialysis treatments for a kidney ailment that keeps her wheelchair-bound. Annie is convinced that the woman, who says her name is “Ondine”, is a selkie, which, if you remember Sayles’ film, is a seal that can shed its skin to become human. One of the perks of rescuing a selkie, according to the folklore into which Annie immerses herself, is seven years of good luck. Syraceuse begins to believe the legends when Ondine’s presence seems to cause fish to miraculously fill his nets and lobsters his traps in outrageous quantities, much to the suspicion of the local fishing authorities and townspeople, including his ex-wife (Dervla Kirwan) and her loutish boyfriend (Tony Curran). Egged on by Annie’s conviction, Syraceuse becomes bewitched by Ondine’s apparent powers and obvious beauty (no surprise, then, that Farrell and Bachelda are currently a couple off-screen), confessing his impulses to the local priest (another wry turn from Jordan regular Stephen Rea) whom he regards more as an AA sponsor than spiritual advisor. Soon, Ondine becomes a very public presence around Castletownbere as Annie’s constant companion (and savior), attracting the attention of a mysterious visitor whose ominous presence may tip some viewers off to the third act revelation a bit earlier than Jordan intended.

The need for fantasy in the lives of adults as well as children is a theme that runs through many of Jordan’s features from the self-penned “The Company Of Wolves”, “Mona Lisa”, and “The Crying Game”, and the Patrick McCabe adaptations “The Butcher Boy” and “Breakfast On Pluto” (and very much part of Jordan’s next project, Neil Gaiman’s children’s novel “The Graveyard Book”). His characters have found enchantment—used and often abused—via religion, politics, sexual experimentation, folklore, and self-delusion. Fantasy, Jordan has said, looks at the world through an “idealized prism”, but “the world resists that point of view”.

Farrell brings an authenticity to the role beyond his accent—his battle with alcoholism is well known, and he invests Syraceuse with a ragged nobility and palpable love for his daughter. With this following fine work in “In Bruges”, Woody Allen’s “Cassandra’s Dream” and Michael Mann’s woefully underappreciated “Miami Vice”, Farrell’s reputation as Joel Schumacher’s “It Boy” and Hollywood’s most eligible hellraiser should be behind him (“Ondine” is one of three eclectic films he’s appearing in at TIFF this year, the others being Danis Tanovic’s “Triage” and Terry Gilliam’s “The Imagination Of Dr. Parnassus”).

On the production side, Kjartan Sveinsson’s spare, hypnotic score (his band, Sigur Ros, also contributes a song that features prominently into the plot) and cinematographer Christopher Doyle’s expert lens work make the rugged Irish terrain (and faces) of this bittersweet fairy tale all the more immersive…

©Robert J. Lewis 2009