The work of Irish auteur Neil Jordan has always had one foot in reality and the other in fantasy. From The Company of Wolves to The Crying Game to Interview with the Vampire to Breakfast on Pluto the director's films have shown the fantastic inside the realistic. It is no different with his latest film, Ondine. It is the story of a fisherman named Syracuse (played by Colin Farrell, with his usual grungy charm) who finds a beautiful, and miraculously alive young women in his nets one morning. She gives her name as Ondine, though we know it is not her real name. Acting mysterious and quite nervous, Syracuse takes the beautiful Ondine into his ramshackle seaside home to hide her away from whatever it is she is hiding from. Enter Syracuse's precocious but sickly little girl Annie, and her instantaneous belief that Ondine is a magical creature - the mythological mermaid-like selkie.
The question of whether this mysterious young woman is indeed a selkie or if it is just a much needed fantasy made real by a young girl trying to avoid the harsh realities of her life (partially estranged from her freshly sobered-up dad and still living with her drunken ma and her mother's possibly abusive boyfriend - not to mention needing a transplant to go on living) is not all that important to the story. If she can blindly believe her fairy tale, then so can we. It is in this fantasy, innately surrounded by reality that makes Jordan's films work as a sort of fable-induced cinema. It works neatly here as well. Of course the story can tread slightly on the silly, but Farrell's performance (the actor seems to get better with each successive role he tackles) as well as Ondine's almost otherworldly qualities (the stunning Polish actress/singer Alicja Bachleda could very well be some sort of fairy tale creature) give the picture some heft to go along with its otherwise slight storytelling.
The real star of the film though is not Farrell nor is it Bachleda (nor is it Alison Barry as the too-smart-for-her-own-good Annie). The real star is cinematographer extraordinaire Christopher Doyle. The man who gave light and atmosphere to such succulent films as In the Mood for Love, 2046, The Quiet American, Hero, Last Life in the Universe, Paranoid Park, The Limits of Control (as well as the otherwise horrendous The Lady in the Water) gives Ondine a gorgeous, and aptly-manicured mystical feel and look. Despite its rather heavy-handedness (an unfortunate directorial quality that Jordan uses quite often) the film has an airy, romantic feel to it. It takes on that extra mystical quality through Doyle's photography, yet Jordan steeps the film in an ultra reality - especially in its turn-about third act - that makes the fairy tale aspects of the film work all that much better. [07/25/10]