"Curiouser and curiouser" is the phrase that various characters keep repeating in Neil Jordan's offbeat romantic fable Ondine -- the words themselves a plainly declared homage to Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. The line serves the Jordan movie aptly, for it underscores the film's offbeat qualities.
Colin Farrell (with his native brogue, as thick as an Irish fog) stars as Syracuse, a long-haired fisherman struggling to make a living on the shores of Ireland in the present day. Still reeling from a rocky past (he once grappled with drunkenness, and now claims over two years of sobriety), he finds joy in periodic visits with his sweet-natured young daughter, Annie (Alison Barry), the wheelchair-bound victim of renal disease, who will soon die if doctors cannot find a kidney-transplant match. To describe Maura (Dervla Kirwan) -- Syracuse's estranged ex-wife and Annie's mother -- as "useless" would be a colossal understatement. A coarse, slightly vulgar drunk, she now lives with an even grungier lover named Alex (Tony Curran), and seems enormously unsuited for maternity. As Syracuse acknowledges at one point, his impetus for sobriety arrived when he returned home from a sea voyage and found poor Annie unconscious while her mother was off at a watering hole, drinking herself into the ground.
Fate deals Syracuse an unforeseen hand one afternoon while he's trawling for fish at sea; he somehow reels in a gorgeous young woman amid his nets (Alicja Bachleda), and discovers that she's still conscious. Her origins and birth name remain unclear, though she asks to be called "Ondine" and insists rather pointedly on remaining hidden from view. Later, she follows Syracuse to his mother's cottage and accepts the fisherman's invitation to reside there as a guest. When the imaginative Annie learns of Ondine's presence and emergence from the water, she concludes that the woman is a selky -- an otherworldly spirit that often takes the form of a seal but can assume a human guise as well. After some initial evasiveness, Ondine affirms this as her real nature, and Syracuse and Annie both accept the explanation. In time, Ondine and Syracuse begin to fall in love, but mysterious figures from Ondine's past resurface and threaten to catch up with her.
Jordan uses the entire film as a highly cerebral commentary on legends and folklore. On one level, the movie reflects on mythmaking as an expression of personal need, and how and why we believe in fantastic legends. The fact that Ondine's presence, mannerisms, and form constantly suggest an otherworldliness is critically important for both Syracuse and Annie. Given Ondine's breathtaking beauty, and delicately graceful mannerisms and posturing, vis-à-vis Syracuse's earthy nature and past as a hell-raising lush, how could he perceive this new woman as anything other than spiritual elevation personified? Moreover, how could his young daughter help but fall in love with Ondine as a deliverance from the grimy life that ensconces her at her mother's house?
More broadly, Jordan draws on the story (particularly its conclusion) to comment on how movies can lead the audience down any path chosen by the screenwriters and director, and therefore function as a tool for contemporary mythmaking of the highest order.
These elements are all rather ingenious; the film, though, feels much skimpier and less satisfying in terms of its emotional quotient. Jordan does provide a handle within the context of the Syracuse-Annie relationship, courtesy of an absolutely magical exchange that finds Annie getting a blood transfusion and Syracuse reading to her quietly -- a sequence filmed in soft light with resonant close-ups. But the writer-director also leaves some critical elements of the Syracuse-Ondine relationship unaddressed. As the cornerstone of the narrative, this romance should ideally give the movie its emotional center, and for some reason, Jordan omits scenes that actually show the fisherman and the mysterious new stranger opening up to one another and falling deeply in love. Unfortunately, the palette of the movie also weakens its emotional impact; as shot by Chris Doyle, it makes fervent use of muddy browns and grays, which not only zap all color from the screen but threaten to zap much of the feeling as well. Everything (both the settings and the characters) strikes one as muted, distanced, oblique, and (sometimes literally) murky. In accordance with the movie's themes, we should ideally get some aesthetic shift when Ondine is present, but this never happens -- not even temporarily.
In the final analysis, Jordan gives us a movie with some truly fascinating ideas and reflections at its core, but because it keeps the audience at a distance rather than involving us in the characters' inner lives, Ondine can't help but feel somewhat disappointing.
cast-crew for Ondine on AllMovie