Thursday, March 04, 2010

Review - Ondine

Ondine is the first original screenplay Neil Jordan has written since he won an Oscar for The Crying Game, and it also happens to be the best film he has made in years. He has set this story in his own backyard, with the action unfolding within a few miles of the director's West Cork home, and it is very much a Neil Jordan film – for better and for worse. Ondine mixes reality up with fantasy in the way this filmmaker loves to do, and the biggest surprise the film has to offer is how well he sustain this balance, keeping his romantic fairytale rooted in something earthy and recognisably real. The fact that he can't quite keep it up to the finish line will be little surprise to those of us who have often been frustrated by the failure of Jordan's impressive individual parts to cohere into a satisfying whole, but he comes closer here than you might expect.

This is the story of a fisherman who finds an unexpected catch in his nets one day. Syracuse – dubbed 'Circus' by most in the community – is an ex-alcoholic who lives alone and dotes on the disabled daughter (Alison Barry) who lives with his still-soused ex-wife Maura (Dervla Kirwan). Syracuse is a decent guy who wants nothing more than a simple life, but his life is complicated in a dramatic fashion by the discovery of a woman lying among the fish in the bottom of his net. She's alive, just about, and when she has regained consciousness she tells Syracuse little about who she is or where she's from. Her name is Ondine (Farrell's real-life partner, Alicja Bachleda), and she insists that nobody apart from Syracuse should be allowed to lay eyes on her. Baffled but intrigued, the fisherman allows her to stay at his remote cottage, and to accompany him on his trawling trips, which proves to be a very wise decision when her otherworldly singing fills his nets with a haul beyond his dreams.

The question raised by Ondine's magical effect on Syracuse's life is whether or not the mysterious stranger might be a Selkie. For those that don't know, Selkies are creatures from Gaelic mythology, formerly seals that have shed their skin to take on a human form. Jordan skilfully weaves the motifs and traditions of this mythology into his script, with pointers for the audience being delivered by young Alison Barry, who turns her character's unlikely preciousness into a charming affectation rather than an irritating one. Her scenes with Farrell are buoyed by a genuine sense of warmth, and throughout the film, Farrell manages to bring a powerful emotional core to his performance, one that is vital for such a whimsical picture. In the years following his breakthrough with Tigerland, I feared we had lost the talented Farrell to the world of mainstream mediocrity – with films like The Recruit, Daredevil, SWAT and the dismal Alexander – but he has found his way again since those dark days, establishing himself as one of the finest actors around in the process. As Syracuse, he gives a wonderfully understated display, full of charm and wounded romanticism, and he gives us a character to care about and to root for. It's a lovely piece of acting.

Ondine is a film that has been crafted with extraordinary care. The atmospheric cinematography by Christopher Doyle captures the harsh beauty of the landscape while suggesting a sense of magic in the air, while Sigur Rós' Kjartan Sveinsson provides an appropriately distinctive and haunting score. All of these elements combine to accentuate the film's sense of mystery and ambiguity, and it comes as a jarring shock when reality comes crashing in on the captivating world Jordan has constructed, particularly when it comes with an edge of violence. Ondine is not a thriller, and those aspects of the picture feel damagingly out of place alongside the earlier dreamlike tone, but Jordan's biggest misstep is to try and explain in the picture's final act who Ondine is and where she really came from. It is a massively deflating revelation, and I was left wishing that that director had instead followed through on his film's more fantastical ideas, and had disregarded the rules of the real world in favour of a climax more daring and imaginative. After all, when a fairytale is as beguiling as this, who on earth needs reality?