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Non-Review Review: Ondine

I like Neil Jordan. He’s probably the greatest Irish director, and one of the few directors who can switch back and forth between big Hollywood productions like The Brave One and quirkier Irish films like Ondine, with neither feeling particularly strange or inappropriate for its particular genre. Ondine is Jordan’s attempt at a lowkey Irish fairytale, told in a small fishing village down in Cork – calling to mind the sort of stereotypical portrayal of country life in Ireland, filled with drunkards and gossiping locals, where everyone knows everyone else and a stranger is instantly remarked upon. It’s to Jordan’s credit that the film works as well as it does. The director manages to create a genuine sense of magic and whimsy which carries a large portion of the film. However, like most magic and slight of hand, if you look too closely you’re liable to figure out that nothing’s going on.

Does Neil Jordan's latest hold water?

Jordan pitches his story as something of a modern fairytale – perhaps something we’ve lost touch with over the years. When the fisherman Syracuse begins to narrate a fairytale to his daughter, she asks him, “Does it always have to be ‘once upon a time’?” The suggestion is that surely there are fairytales that begin “A week ago…” or “Yesterday afternoon…” or “Earlier this morning…” And so, Syracuse begins to narrate to his daughter a story which began that morning, when he fished a strange young woman out of the ocean.

She couldn’t possibly be a mermaid, as she doesn’t have a tale, so Syracuse’s daughter comes to the conclusion that she must be a “selkie”. Gradually the three characters (Syracuse, his daughter and the lady from the water) begin to play into this fantasy of a mythical creature beached up off the coast of Cork. “That’s one truth,” the woman who claims to have lost her memory concedes, and perhaps the one that everyone wants to believe. The film weighs a bit on what “the real truth” to such a situation is, with the tagline suggesting “The truth is not what you know; it’s what you believe.” Which is clearly not the case. Somebody needs to get the marketing department who came up with that a dictionary.

Jordan is a consummate film maker. He manages to make the green overgrowth and lilac flowers of Cork look almost as beautiful as they do in real life. As with a fairytale, he offers a hypersaturated pallet, complete with vibrant greens and purples. As he shoots the harbours and the seas, they seem almost like some sort of magical land – particularly a scene on an island made of pebbles with a beach rusty ship washed up on it. The whole film has an ethereal quality, where even the desaturated night scenes look like some sort of grim fantasy.

Unfortunately, Jordan over-eggs his pudding a bit. The film wholehearted ventures into “saccharine” territory at points. In particular, Jordan displays a fondness for extended sequences of Celtic songs dubbed over sequences of characters walking or moving through the scenery. Once or twice might have been okay, but these sorts of sequences recur throughout the movie. Perhaps it’s an indication of the movie’s true flaw: it’s a fairytale without a story. In fact, were I to sum up the movie in a plot synopsis sort of way, it would come out something like this: “fisherman finds woman in net; some stuff happens; there are musical scenes; some random but unexciting stuff happens; it’s endearing; some more random stuff happens; it’s sad; the inevitable and entirely predictable ending unfolds”. There’s no clear narrative or story – it’s like Jordan began with his first scene and knew what his ending was, but made up the rest as he went along.

It doesn't flow naturally...

Not that there’s anything wrong with that – I love an unconventional movie and don’t expect a standard three-act structure or anything as banal – but it also explains how the film runs out of energy about an hour into its runtime. We know where the movie is going almost from the outset, and Jordan gives us little reason to invest too much in what is going on. The entire movie feels almost like that guy you used to know in school who was absolutely brilliant and always did well in tests, but never did any of the work.

That said, Jordan does more than a fair amount right. He paints a fairly accurate picture of small-town life, even if it is cliché. It doesn’t descend quite into the realms of farce that certain other portrayals of Irish country life have over the years, even if it’s an iteration of the same sort of mentality. There’s a hint more depth to it than normal. When Syracuse’s father suggests to him that “confession is not a chapter of AA”, the fisherman replies that, “There’s none in this town, father.” It’s pretty telling when the clothes shop in your town can’t find a more exciting calendar than “Lighthouses of Ireland”.

The cast lend the film some measure of charm. Colin Farrell is fairly good in the lead role – it’s hardly In Bruges, but it’s a decent performance. Alison Barry is okay as Syracuse’s daughter, even if she ventures into “as cute as Tiny Tim” territory. Alicja Bachleda does okay as the mysterious woman drafted in. It’s nice to see Dervla Kirwan and Tony Curran in supporting roles. And it’s great to see Jordan regular Stephen Rea in a supporting role as a parish priest.

All in all, Ondine is a nice little film – the only problem is it’s so sedate it’s hard to tell if it’s napping or dead. Jordan certainly has a fine touch and his visuals help the film along the way, but the fundamental problem is that there isn’t a lot going on here.

6 Responses

  1. Was the accent at all distracting?

  2. It was the perfect movie for the afternoon, it is also suitable for children aged 8 upwards. Did not find it a little boring or slow.

  3. You know, I am American and I did not mind the accents at all. Needless to say, I did end up turning on the closed captioning just because the accents do get a bit thick and I like not to miss any dialogue. I guess it doesn’t bother me because I know Colin has an accent and I actually like it when he gets to use it. I loved his role in the film because it is a Colin you do not always get to see in most his films. He is laid back and unexciting for the most part, which is completely different from his high stress, big action movies that we normally see him in.

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