He’s an Irishman, she’s a seal. It’ll never work.
That’s the premise behind the fantastical romantic drama “Ondine” from writer-director Neil Jordan, who usually digs into some rougher territory in films like “The Crying Game” and “The Brave One.”
For “Ondine” though, he’s created a charmer of a fractured fairy tale with just the right amount of low-key Irish grit to make the film palatable to grown-up audiences. It even gets a little too dark to bring the kiddos, which is a shame, because Jordan spins an enchanting little yarn.
Colin Farrell plays Syracuse (nicknamed “Circus” by his mates for his goofy charm), an Irish fisherman who finds something unusual in his net one morning. It’s a woman (Polish actress Alicja Bachleda) who has seemingly drowned. But Syracuse is somehow able to revive her and takes her home.
After all, it’s not every day a mysterious woman shows up in your net, and Syracuse doesn’t have much else in his life. His ex-wife hates him, and the fishing business isn’t good. The only light in his life is his irrepressible daughter Annie (the buoyant Alison Barry), who needs a kidney transplant and motors around their little seaside village in a motorized wheelchair.
Syracuse wonders if the woman is a mermaid and discovers that when she sings, the salmon all but leap into his net for him. But Annie does some research and comes across the myth of Ondine. According to Celtic lore, Ondine is a selkie, a mythological creature who travels the oceans as a seal, but can shed her seal coat and become human. The woman won’t say what she is, although she does seem awfully comfortable in the water, even while fully clothed.
Jordan seems to enjoy detailing the melancholy textures of this little Irish village — the waterlogged streets, the gray skies, the smell of fish that seems to emanate off the screen. It’s tricky business to inject such a fanciful myth into what could have been a grimy realist drama, but Jordan makes it work for the most part.
After dipping into mainstream Hollywood waters with movies like “S.W.A.T.” and “Phone Booth,” Farrell has redirected his career with low-key but indelible performances in quality indie movies like “In Bruges” and “Crazy Heart.” He continues his winning streak here, making Syracuse a worthy working-class hero who hides his hope under a facade of caustic Irish wit.
Bachleda is good too, although the movie tends to objectify her with repeated shots of her in low-cut, soaking wet dresses. And Jordan-favorite Stephen Rea has a nice supporting performance as the local priest, whose sense of humor is even more acerbic than Syracuse’s.
The film takes a darker turn in the third act with the appearance of a mysterious stranger who seems to be following Ondine; just when we feel like we’re settling in for a happy ending, Jordan starts putting us on edge. While it’s those stylistic shifts that may limit the audience for “Ondine,” it’s that willingness to be unpredictable and eccentric that’s one of its key charms.