Director Neil Jordan and actor Colin Farrell honor their Irish heritage in Ondine, an earnest adult fairly tale about a fisherman who finds a beautiful woman in his net. The film pairs Irish mythology with human drama, and, although it occasionally stumbles when mixing whimsy with reality, is a unique and mostly enjoyable experience.
Syracuse (Farrell) is trying to live down his local nickname, Circus, by quitting the bottle and concentrating on fishing and his young daughter Annie (newcomer Alison Barry), who needs a kidney transplant. His traps come up empty until he hauls in a beautiful woman (Polish actress Alicja Bachleda-Curuś) with no memory of how she got there. She says her name is Ondine ("she came from the sea"), and Syracuse's daughter decides she is a selkie, a mermaid-like creature that can shed its skin and become human.
Ondine is a harvester of good fortune, and her siren songs seem to bring fish in droves. She shacks up at Syracuse's house to assess her situation, but does not want to be seen by the townsfolk. Precocious Annie is instantly smitten with her father's houseguest, and checks out every book in the library on selkies and sea creatures. Annie hopes Ondine will leave her undersea home permanently and use her mystical powers to cure Annie's failing kidneys. As the story moves along, Ondine and its heroine become, in the words of Annie, "curiouser and curiouser."
Beautifully shot on the misty shores of Ireland, the film is unique in its exploration of Irish mythology, but occasionally comes up short as a cohesive whole. Farrell is excellent as a salt-of-the-earth fisherman and father, and Bachleda-Curuś is striking in her portrayal of Ondine. The film only falters when mixing myth and reality becomes more laborious in its second half. Director Jordan (The Crying Game) does an admirable job exploring the selkie myth simply and artfully, with most of the exposition coming from Annie's research, but this fairy tale butts heads with Annie's very real health problems and her unstable alcoholic mother.
Ultimately, Ondine likely follows the adage "different strokes for different folks," as it is a difficult film to pin down and likely will draw varied reactions. I was not completely satisfied by its conclusion, and this certainly colored my opinion of the entire film. Ondine is technically strong, well-acted and reasonably intriguing, but I would have preferred to leave the harsh curtain of reality closed.
Magnolia presents Ondine on DVD with an acceptable 1:85.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. Cinematographer Christopher Doyle's exceptional work comes through mostly unscathed, and the transfer boasts bold colors and natural skin tones. The Irish coastal setting of Ondine is challenging, with its mix of rain, clouds and ocean spray, and contrast is occasionally blown out, giving the sky an indistinct white glare. This may be a stylistic choice by the filmmakers, as blacks also move toward oppressive in select scenes. Detail is often very good, especially in tighter shots, but some long shots on the water would benefit from a bump in resolution, and when characters are shown from far away, their features are not easily discernible. I noticed one particularly bad shot in which Farrell is standing on a hill, his features scrubbed away and his figure surrounded by a glaring halo. Fortunately, the rest of the transfer fared better, and I didn't notice any obtrusive artificial sharpening. Overall, this is a decent transfer that could have been better.
The thick Irish accents may be hard to understand for some, but this is no fault of the film's solid Dolby Digital 5.1 track. Ondine is a fairly quiet film, and the track handles dialogue, as well as ambient sounds, superbly. When the track is faced with effects in several scenes, it is appropriately boisterous. A Dolby Digital 2.0 track is also available, as are Spanish subtitles.
The DVD falls short on bonus materials, missing the chance to include a director and actor commentary or a piece on Irish folklore. What we get instead are two short making-of featurettes. The first, Making Ondine (9:39), features interviews with the cast and crew, many of which are duplicated in HDNet: A Look at Ondine (4:41). Both play like EPK material and are not particularly interesting or informative. The film's theatrical trailer is also included.
Though it is not entirely successful at blending fantasy and reality, Ondine is a moving and unique diversion for two hours. The cast, led by Colin Farrell, is excellent, and director Neil Jordan brings a patient confidence to the project. The story will likely lose some viewers in the end, but the DVD for Ondine is technically solid, despite a lack of extras, and comes Recommended.
William lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, and looks forward to a Friday-afternoon matinee.