Thursday, April 22, 2010

Tribeca ’10: Ondine

Life as the only admitted alcoholic in a small coastal Irish village is difficult for Syracuse, especially with his mean-spirited ex-wife constantly belittling him in front of his wheelchair bound daughter, Annie. It is easy to see how both father and daughter would welcome a bit of fantasy into their lives in Neil Jordan’s Ondine (trailer here), which screens at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

Syracuse made a hash of his life through binge drinking. Now on the wagon, he uses the confessional as his surrogate AA meeting. Barely eking out a subsistence living, one day he pulls up his fishing nets and finds a beautiful woman tangled up inside. Adamant that she not be seen by anyone, Syracuse lets her recover at his recently deceased mother’s ramshackle cottage.

Though Syracuse tells Annie about the mystery woman calling herself Ondine as if it were a fairy tale, the bright young girl automatically assumes it to be the truth. Inevitably, Annie soon meets the woman she believes to be a selkie, a mermaid like creature from Celtic mythology, half convincing her father and perhaps even Ondine herself with her ardent conviction. Yet, Jordan periodically drops hints that Ondine’s origins might be darker and worldlier than Annie’s reassuring version of reality.

The human need to believe in something good and edifying lies at the heart of Ondine, but it also deftly incorporates themes of family and personal responsibility. Completely shedding his movie star persona, Colin Farrell is thoroughly convincing and undeniably likable as Syracuse, despite the character’s myriad of faults. Indeed, he is the lynchpin of the movie, serving as the tragically flawed moral center of this emotionally deep film.

Ethereally beautiful, the Polish Alicja Bachleda powerfully combines both an exquisite sensitivity and an earthy seductiveness as Ondine. In a small but meaningful role deliberately written with him in mind, Stephen Rea again displays his talent for projecting world-weary dignity as the village priest. Jordan also makes the picturesque village of Castletownebere (where he maintains a home away from Hollywood) a supporting character in its own right.

While likely to be compared to John Sayles’s The Secret of Roan Inish, the last notable selkie film, Ondine takes the legend in a radically different direction. Yet, both are films of quiet beauty in their own distinctive ways. Indeed, they suggest the selkie movie might be a subgenre worth further exploration.

Jordan masterfully balances Ondine’s fantastical sense of wonder and its intense climatic scenes. With Christopher Doyle’s evocative cinematography soaking up the rugged beauty of the sea and coastline, the film is a rich visual feast. Honestly touching, but scrupulously free of any cheap sentiment, Ondine is a tiny miracle of a movie. Enormously satisfying, it screens during Tribeca on Wednesday (4/28), Thursday (4/29), and Saturday (5/1), in advance of its early June theatrical opening.