Movie review: 'Ondine,' with Colin Farrell, is a tale of charm and mystery

Alicja Bachleda is a mystery woman and Colin Farrell a fisherman in "Ondine."
Alicja Bachleda is a mystery woman and Colin Farrell a fisherman in "Ondine." (Magnolia Pictures)
By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 11, 2010

Spun like a gorgeous contemporary fairy tale, "Ondine" is the story of a lonely Irish fisherman named Syracuse (Colin Farrell) who one day pulls up his net to find a woman (Alicja Bachleda) inside, beautiful but barely alive. She speaks English with an indeterminate accent and shies away from other people, preferring not to be taken to the hospital but to recover in a remote shack outside town that belonged to Syracuse's late mother.

Calling herself Ondine (a name that comes from the French word for "wave"), the woman seems not of this world. She sings strange music to the fishes, bringing Syracuse unprecedented luck with his daily catch. A divorced, recovering alcoholic and perpetual misfit whose nickname is Circus, he finds a kindred spirit in Ondine.

Syracuse's daughter Annie (Allison Barry) speculates that that's because she's a silkie, a mythological creature that is part seal. A silkie, Annie discovers during a visit to the local library, can sometimes shed its skin and live on two legs among humans, often finding unexpected happiness with a landsman.

And what if that story were true?

Annie certainly believes it is, and she might have reason to do so. Wheelchair-bound due to kidney failure, she dreams of walking unassisted. One day, when Ondine is teaching her to swim, Ondine finds a mysterious bundle under the water and promptly fishes it out, burying it in a nearby greenhouse. That's more than enough proof for Annie, who believes the parcel to be Ondine's missing "seal coat." Ondine neither explicitly endorses nor discourages that fantastical point of view.

She and Annie agree to keep it their little secret.

Meanwhile, a mysterious stranger (Emil Hostina) shows up and starts asking questions around town about Ondine. Annie is convinced that it is Ondine's silkie husband, come to carry her away beneath the waves. Syracuse doesn't know what to think. But he does know that he's falling in love with Ondine and that he doesn't want her to leave.

You, too, will be kept guessing in this charming tale from writer-director Neil Jordan ("The Crying Game"). Is Ondine really a silkie? Or is there perhaps some more prosaic explanation for her sudden appearance and her odd ways?

At some point in the telling, Jordan has to fish or cut bait. He can't string us along forever. And when he resolves the mystery, he does so beautifully, satisfying both realists and those who long for a storybook ending.

That's because some tales don't have to be one thing or the other. "Ondine" paints a world in which the miraculous and the mundane coexist not just comfortably, but convincingly. Maybe not with silkies in it, but with magic all the same.

At one point in the film, Annie defines the phrase "quotidian world" -- as opposed to the world of the imagination -- as "the one we have to live in." But that's just it: We don't have to live in it, at least not all the time. Silkies aren't the only creatures who can inhabit two worlds. As Annie knows, and as Jordan's film makes clear, stories enable us to step outside the quotidian world and dream, if only for an hour or two.

*** PG-13. At Landmark's Bethesda Row. Contains obscenity, scenes of violence and a car crash, sensuality and drug content. 102 minutes.

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