“Ondine” is one of those Irish dramedies that you see as you’re scrolling down this or that streaming menu (Roku, Tubi, etc. have it) and you wonder, “Haven’t I seen that?”
It’s a sea sprite romance — “Selkies,” they’re called. A little of bit “The Secret of Roan Inish,” the animated “Song of the Sea” and the like.
And it’s the sort of movie you see mentioned on blogs of a “Whatever happened to Colin Farrell?” nature, although Farrell’s still around, still doing good work even in bad movies (“Voyagers”).
A better query might be “Whatever happened to Neil Jordan?” Ireland’s quixotic if somewhat mainstream director is best known for “The Crying Game,” “The Brave One” and “Michael Collins,” but too-often associated with obscure pictures like this one, “Byzantium” and “Greta,” movies with quality casts and something to offer. It’s just that they didn’t offer much to very many people.
But back to this bit of dark whimsy. Farrell plays Syracuse, master and owner of the trawler Lucy B in tiny Castletown, Eire, a fisherman known by the locals as “Circus.” He’s a onetime circus clown, unlucky at love, a recovering alcoholic, father of a little girl with kidney failure and not exactly a thriving fisherman.
Until the day this stunning young woman (Alicja Bachleda) turns up in his net.
We used to know two great truths about most Colin Farrell movies going in — that if he could manage it, he’d do the Johnny Depp thing and avoid a haircut or a serious scrubbing down. And a Colin Farrell character has but one response to something of a jaw-dropping nature, like finding some soaking wet siren with a strange accent in his trawl net.
Circus is shocked, dismayed, panicked as he tries to revive this 20something in a soggy, short cut dress. And when she refuses a hospital and hides from other boats, he can only wonder.
“Are ye one of those ASYLUM seekers?” Maybe she swam from the Med in the Middle East. “Ondine” she calls herself. A touch poetic. And she sings.
It’s only when he’s telling his daughter Annie (Alison Barry, in one of the more adorable-precocious performances in recent screen history) that this “Once upon a time” tale as the little girl takes dialysis that he hears a more “logical” solution to the mystery.
“Is she a selkie then?”
Annie’s a minor authority with the wherewithal to become a library-trained expert on the subject. And when she finally meets Da’s “water baby,” holed up at his mother’s old cottage, she proceeds to tell the rescued woman about the mermaid-like selkies and their “seal coat” and the “seven tears” that can tie them to “a landsman” for “seven years” should she fall in love.
As Ma (Dervla Kerwan) is a surly unrepentant alcoholic, Annie would like Da to have somebody new in his life. Ondine is “good luck.” When she sings, lobsters crowd his traps and all sorts of fish fill his net — even salmon, “which you never catch trawling.”
“Circus” has but one person to seek counsel from, the whimsical priest (Stephen Rea) who suffers Circus treating confession as “an AA meeting,” but does what he can.
As Circus and his no-longer-hidden new “water baby” friend turn heads, threats to their world come from both supernatural and all-too-natural means.
Jordan immerses us in this tiny world of overcast skies, lush greens and a salty damp you can almost taste. The characters are fully-formed, even the not-that-bad new man in Annie’s mom’s life.
Annie’s a smart kid, quoting “Alice in Wonderland” (“Curiouser and curiouser!”) and using words like “quotidian” in the proper context. But as someone with “special needs,” she’s not above letting the rough kids mess around with her new electric wheelchair just to impress them and curry favor.
Farrell and Rea’s scenes have an easy, bemused rapport.
And Farrell plays his moments around this young woman who may or may not be of supernatural origin in properly gobsmacked shades.
Acting is a profession that feeds insecurities and invites harsh body image judgements on one and all. Vanity enters into it, too. If Bachleda is ever unsure of her gifts in that regard, all she needs to do is screen “Ondine.” Back in 2008-9 she made an unutterably gorgeous sea sprite, whatever the accent.
The movie is something of a mixed bag, twee and sweet when it’s dabbling in fantasy, hard and jarring when it turns “quotidian.”
But director Jordan and Farrell, Rea, Barry and Bachleda keep it interesting and charming, even if its grand mystery is one we can write off as “all wet.”
MPA Rating: PG-13 for some violence, sensuality and brief strong language
Cast: Colin Farrell, Alicja Bachleda, Alison Barry, Dervla Kirwan and Stephen Rea.
Credits: Scripted and directed by Neil Jordan, a Magnolia release on many streaming platforms.
Running time: 1:50