Colin Farrell fishes a mysterious woman out of the sea in Ondine, a dark and sweet, though not completely well-executed, fairy tale.
Syracuse (Farrell) is a fisherman in a small Irish town who is shocked one day to find a woman (Alicja Bachleda) caught in his net. He is sure she’s dead, but she coughs her way back to life. Who is she? Why was she in the ocean? She either doesn’t remember or doesn’t want to remember and despite having almost drowned, she doesn’t want to go to the hospital. Syracuse takes her to the home left empty after the death of his mother — a shack near the ocean. When he shows up the next day to see if she’s a dream, he finds the woman still there and willing to come with him as he goes out fishing for another day. Call me Ondine, she tells him (based on a myth about a water nymph). She sings as they sail along and, though it would defy timing and science, it appears to help him bring in a phenomenal catch — first of lobsters and then of fish, including fish that shouldn’t be available in the waters where they’re fishing.
Syracuse isn’t quite sure what to make of Ondine. He finds her attractive, clearly, and likes the idea of a lucky charm but he also finds himself scared of good fortune. He is a man whose hold on life is a bit shaky — he’s a recovering alcoholic who had to leave his wife, who was also a drinker. But leaving her for his sobriety means leaving his daughter Annie (Alison Barry), a precocious child who is sick and needs a kidney transplant. Syracuse accompanies her to dialysis and tells her — claiming it is a fairy tale — about Ondine. Annie thinks the woman must be a selkie — a mermaid-like creature who becomes human by taking off her seal skin. Annie also quickly catches on that there’s more behind her dad’s stories than make-believe and she follows him to find Ondine and try to figure out what she is.
Meanwhile, a shady-looking man is hanging around the port asking questions about a girl, and he doesn’t seem to be a sea creature who has lost his mate.
Ondine reminded me of Millions, a movie about a boy who sees saints and finds money from a robbery that he thinks has been sent from God. This movie has a similar tone and, like Millions, plays on how a child can see a situation through the lens of fantasy versus the darker, more realistic way it appears to adults. But Ondine is not as skillfully put together or as family-appropriate as that fairy tale. In that movie, a young boy whose mother has died and whose father eventually begins dating again is menaced by the scary robbers who stole the money in the first place. But in this movie, the very human villain behind the potential fairy tale is much creepier — and drunken parents are scarier than beatific dead ones.
After watching Ondine, I enjoyed the story and the relationship between Annie and Ondine and Annie and her father. But the story is too dark, too adult in some moments to truly enchant younger audiences looking for a modern fairy tale and too soft at other points to satisfy those who would enjoy a Pan’s Labyrinth-style dark fantasy story. Ondine has the potential to delight but doesn’t quiet follow it through.
Rated PG-13 for some violence, sensuality and brief strong language. Written and directed by Neil Jordan, Ondine is an hour and 43 minutes long, is distributed in limited release by Magnolia Pictures and is available via Comcast On Demand. It will screen at the Music Hall in Portsmouth in August.