REVIEW: Ondine Captivates With Magic and Mastery
Long before "glamour" was a word applied all too casually to movie stars and red-carpet gowns, it was a term used to denote an enchantment or spell, a cobwebby thing that could either lull a human being into a woozy dream state or suddenly make him feel fully and bracingly alive. Neil Jordan's modern-day Irish fairy tale Ondine works that kind of glamour, at first offering us the illusion of pure, stolid ordinariness -- to the point of being, quite literally, gray -- only to shift, before our eyes, into something darkly glittering and spectacular. The magic of Ondine is all beneath the surface, a shimmery school of fish that you can never be fully sure you glimpsed, but whose existence you don't for an instant doubt. Maybe all you see is a silvery flash, but that's enough.
Jordan opens Ondine with a fairy-tale image shot in the most prosaic tones: Colin Farrell is Syracuse, a preternaturally worried-looking fisherman who, in the course of a normal day's work, pulls up something quite extraordinary in his net -- a girl who at first appears to dead. The water around Syracuse's boat is gray, the sky is gray, the girl is gray: Everything in Ondine, in those moments, is the color of the lack of hope, both beautiful and despairing.
But the girl turns out to be miraculously alive, although after Syracuse revives her, she's terrified: She scuttles away from him, from one end of the boat to the next, like a fearful, impossibly graceful, long-limbed crab. He blinks at her, recognizing her as something beyond human. She blinks back at him, deciding on a slow-burning whim to trust him. Her eyes are large and round, fishlike in their blank directness.
This shy and exquisite creature -- she's played by Polish actress Alicja Bachleda -- makes it clear she doesn't want to be seen by anyone other than Syracuse, and he brings her to a deserted house (the one his late mother used to live in), where she'll be safe. The next day, she goes back out on the boat with him, and as she sings out to the ocean, lobsters from all around hear her song and creep by the dozen into his traps. It's the best luck he's had in ages. She tells him her name is Ondine, which is, coincidentally or not, just one name for the fairy-like sea creatures who have, over the centuries, crept from the collective memory of many different cultures.
Syracuse's young daughter, Annie (Alison Barry, in a marvelously smart and unsentimental performance), knows something about these creatures -- she calls them by their Scottish name, "selkies." Annie is a sickly kid who desperately needs a kidney transplant; she's so weak that she needs a wheelchair to get around, although she's staunchly un-self-pitying and refuses to let anyone else pity her, either. Syracuse adores her, but he's estranged from her boozy mother (Dervla Kirwan); he himself sobered up after realizing he was letting Annie down, but he knows that in the small Irish coastal town where he lives, a burg bound by tradition, he'll never be granted custody. Still, he tries to care for her as best he can. And when Annie discovers her father's secret houseguest -- she catches the ocean-loving Ondine swimming, in a filmy dress that clings to her like seaweed -- she's at first intrigued by her. Then she simply comes to like her.
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