Quickly skimming over Neil Jordan’s filmography, it would seem the director doesn’t like to stay in one place for too long. He often switches back and forth between the personal and the commercial, sometimes combining the two through a grab-bag of genres: for better or for worse, crime, historical epic, gothic, comedy, and thriller have all been worked over in various ways by the director. In Ondine, an update on a Germanic folktale, you get the sense that this lack of stability is what ultimately causes the film to fail.
The film moves swimmingly at the front end, if a little loose around the edges: Syracuse (Colin Farrell), a lonely fisherman and former drunk with little luck, pulls Ondine (Alicja Bachleda), a half-naked girl, out of the water in his nets, much to his surprise. After reviving her, he agrees to let her stay at his dead mother’s house, a dusty hideaway tucked into the side of a hill where she will be out of sight from strangers. Suddenly, Syracuse begins to catch more fish than he realistically should. His daughter, Annie (Alison Barry), however, realizes that Ondine isn’t normal and heads to the library in her wheelchair (she suffers from a kidney disease) to study up on sea mythology in a bid to convince her father that he’s sleeping with a selkie (a mythological creature) of sorts. The town begins to ask questions about this mysterious girl who appeared out of the sea, which threaten to bring startling truths about her past out in the open.
As Syracuse, Colin Farrell is refreshingly natural and restrained, refusing to infuse his character with a heavy handedness that would cause the film to sink in a sea of its own dreariness. Especially in scenes with the local priest, played by Stephen Rea, there is a loose comedy the two actors bounce off each other that keeps these sequences — mostly taking place in a church confession booth — from becoming too overbearing. Alicja Bachleda, on the other hand, never truly finds her place in the film, which leads to a lot of awkward stares, hesitated lines, and general miscommunication. This is not her fault entirely, as there is not much for her to do inside the role of “sexy sea nymph,” except, you know, be “sexy” and swim.
Moments of beauty appear in Ondine, but are often followed by others that leave you scratching your head. Beautifully filmed by ace cinematographer Christopher Doyle, the backdrop to Ondine serves as the film’s most redeeming quality, weighing down the whimsical and gooey aspects, and serving as the cinematic glue holding the film together. Through the rolling hills and quiet wind, there is a bristling tension just under the surface, and it’s all captured wonderfully here.
But when said atmosphere is pushed to its limits, the film jumps into an ocean of bad decisions it can’t pull itself out of. To reveal most of these decisions would be to spoil some major surprises that occur toward the end of Ondine, but I can say this: there is one particular shift that’s so jarring, I wasn’t sure it is brave or ridiculous. A little of both, perhaps. Which very much describes the film as a whole. The film often fluctuates between disparate tones, completely distancing the viewer after spending long periods of time working toward immersion. It’s hard not to think that, in better hands, something could be salvaged. The pieces are all here; they’re just misplaced.