It is very difficult to describe the three-person play that is Neil Jordan’s latest film, Ondine. Oh, there are other people in it, but apart from Stephen Rea’s excellent ability to support, they don’t matter. It’s difficult to describe, because every additional word I might use to relay the story will undoubtedly lead you astray. The problem is that we have this desire, and one that is nearly impossible to overcome, to know what movies are about.
It may be quite a stretch to say that the film isn’t about anything (though it’s a stretch I think I’ll push), but thirty minutes in my entire reaction could be summed up by saying that I didn’t care if it was about anything. Sure, I can tell you what happens, but there is an aboutness that gets lost in translation. You could tell me what you’ve done the last few days, but it doesn’t make that time about something.
Syracuse (Colin Farrell), “Circus” to most of his small Irish village, is a fisherman who is scraping by, and the fishing boat he clearly repairs himself tells much of his tale. His luck with the nets hasn’t been great recently, but our story begins with him hauling in a woman.
Nearly drowned, the woman nevertheless doesn’t want to go to a hospital, and moreover doesn’t want to be seen. Syracuse, having little option, takes her to his dead mother’s shack by the sea, because he has to get to his daughter. In a wheelchair due to kidney failure, Syracuse has to pick up little Annie (Alison Barry) from his ex-wife to get her to dialysis.
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With a couple of hours to kill, Syracuse tells Annie a story about a fisherman who catches a woman in his nets, and Annie becomes convinced the woman is a Selkie. When she discovers the woman is real, it doesn’t change her opinion of the situation.
Still demanding not to be seen by anyone, the woman tells Syracuse to call her Ondine (another mythological water nymph), and though he becomes more unsure what to do with/about her, she seems to be proving herself dishearteningly unreal. The fact that fish jump into the nets when she sings is only the beginning.
It’s easy to look at Ondine as a fairy tale, or deconstruct it in such terms (pseudo-fairy tale, non-fairy tale, modern fairy tale), but if Ondine is about anything (and I’m not sure it is), I think it is only about why we have fairy tales. The actual story is somewhat irrelevant.
Syracuse is called Circus for a reason. He’s got a serious past trailing in his wake, one that involves a lot of drunkeness, and despite more than two years sober, even the local priest needs a lot of reminding if Syracuse wants to one day rid himself of the label. He sobered up for the love a good woman, his daughter Annie, and his endless toil aboard his boat has paid off in that he hasn’t any money, is more or less the town fool, and his lovely lass has a failed kidney and little hope of a donor. Life is grand.
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Delivered by Neil Jordan (The Crying Game, Michael Collins) in the most casual of styles, with all the effort put toward the smallest nuances, the film beats all the world’s ugliness into you, without ever showing you anything ugly. There are moments oddly uncomfortable, such as a scene or two with Annie and mom’s new boyfriend, just to slam home the idea that you never really know. There are moments that sting with the oddly bitter flavor of normalcy when we look at the apparent drudgery Syracuse calls life.
And yet, Syracuse is a pretty jovial guy. He has his daughter, firecracker that she is, and indeed his life, in a way that few people do, even if he may not be aware of it. It’s rough, life, and ugly, but there are pretty things in it.
Annie gives you a little hook herself from within the movie, because when her dad tells her a story which goes, basically, “A man catches a Selkie in his net,” she asks, “then what?” He stumbles for a moment, and says, “That’s it,” and he gets the very proper reply, “That’s a shite story.”
It is of course, but she wants to know what the story’s about, and that is to have already gone wrong. Anyone can pull a woman out of the water, precious few land a Selkie.