Looking over my recent columns, I think I’ve indulged myself a bit too much. So this week no more Godzilla, zombie movies or superheroes, we’re gonna look at a somber, artful Irish movie.
Ondine is a 2009 film by Neil Jordan, possibly the most prominent Irish filmmaker of our time. Jordan rose to fame when he won the Academy Award for his 1992 film The Crying Game, a film which despite what you may have heard is only partially about a guy who finds out his girlfriend is a transsexual.
Jordan is most at home when he’s making fundamentally Irish movies, and Ondine is definitely one of those.
Colin Farrel stars as Syracuse, a fisherman who pulls up a mysterious and seemingly amnesiac woman in his net. He openly muses that perhaps she’s a selkie, a sea creature from Irish and Scottish mythology that comes on land to fall in love with fishermen.
The speculation becomes more and more real, however, and the question of whether this woman is indeed a magical creature is something the movie toys with until the final act. The film is very good at playing with our expectation, throwing out hints at one possibility and then another, keeping the audience interested to find out what exactly is going on.
Don’t worry, I won’t spoil it, but I will say that the ending may turn some people off. As I said earlier, this movie is very somber in its tone, which is typical of Irish movies these days. In 2008 there was an economic crash that brought a sudden end to a period of unprecedented economic prosperity and social growth, and the period following has been a downtrodden time indeed.
The ending of the film is, for lack of a better term, very fairytale like. Things get wrapped up rather neatly and happily, which some may see as a betrayal of the film’s bleak tone. I enjoyed it myself, but I can see how a lot of people may be unsatisfied with it as a conclusion.
Colin Farrel proves yet again that he can act his ass off when he wants to, painting a fascinating picture of a man grappling with his own set of demons, in this case alcoholism and a terminally ill daughter.
Alicja Bachleda is equally terrific as the mysterious woman Ondine, a lost soul to complement Farrel’s Syracuse, a (literal?) fish out of water, scared and alone in a strange land. I’ll just come out and say it, she’s also insanely beautiful. She spends a lot of the movie in baggy sweaters and sporting dirty, tangled hair and she still looks stunning. The sexual tension between her and Farrel is thick enough to spread on toast and I was not at all surprised to learn she and Farrel had an off-screen romance and that she even had his kid.
Another element that may divide people is Annie, Syracuse’s daughter, who is slowly dying of kidney failure. She’s one of those kids you see a lot in movies who seems to talk like someone twice her age. She seems very mature, and perhaps too much so at times.
It’s a cliché I see a lot, and something that happens as a result of writers who just don’t know how to write children properly, but in Jordan’s case I’ll let it pass. She was a good character, don’t get me wrong, but she did start to grate on me here and there.
As I said before, the film is fundamentally Irish. For one, it has a pronounced tension between older “pagan” beliefs and Christianity. One of Syracuse’s only friends is the local priest, who acts as a kind of one-man AA meeting for Farrel and instantly disapproves of this strange woman Syracuse is suddenly with, and utterly denounces the possibility that she is a mythical creature.
The tension between the “old” mythical beliefs and the “new” Christianity is in the subtext of a lot of Irish literature and film, pretty much ever since some fella calling himself St. Patrick waltzed in and told us we can’t worship our nice, scary-looking pagan gods.
It isn’t an outright conflict in this case, Ondine and the priest never even meet in the film, but the tension between the two and what they potentially represent is definitely there.
The dowdy, abstinence and sobriety-promoting Christian priest vs a leggy Slavic chick who may in fact be a creature of pagan lore. I see watcha did there, Neil. I see watcha did there.
Speaking of which, Jordan’s technical prowess is in full swing. The film is gorgeously shot, with lots of clever framing, mixed with many somber but breathtaking shots of the Irish coastline. At times things do get a tad jumbled, especially during a climactic scene at night when it gets a bit hard to tell who is doing what, but aside from that you can tell that a professional is calling the shots here.
Honestly, there isn’t much more I can say here. Ondine is a fantastic addition to the repertoire of all involved, and if you’re looking for something moody, introspective and very very Irish, I would definitely check it out.