Let me throw up a tantalizing offer for you, like an all-you-can-eat buffet featuring KING CRAB LEGS at a seaside resort!!! Neil Jordan made a relatively unheard-of little film with money from the Irish Film Board, a PG-13 film mind you, starring Colin Farrell as a fisherman who discovers a mysterious woman in his net who may or may not be a mermaid. Digest a bit, maybe walk around on the shore before you make your decision.
Sounds promising, no? Yet when you come through the doors, you’re face to face with a bloated, soggy-fried lumps of still-partially frozen clams version of a fairy tale that leaves you nauseous. Ondine is Jordan’s inside out version of the legend of the selkie. Except it gets parboiled and leeched of all color through a filter of misbegotten Irish woe. The strangest part is the acting’s better than fine, albeit peppered with a bevy of confounding accents, but the story lolls about like a beached whale seeking death. Oddly enough, the selkie tale is usually one of unvarying sexual domination and cruelty, which Jordan totally warps and triumphs over, only to offer up the tits of his titular heroine in states of constant semi-nudity. It ends up as more of an advertisement for Victoria’s Secret of Roan Inish. Any semblance of joy or wit or pleasure gets drowned under a lagging pace, a carapace-crushingly stupid plot, and a fishy twist that I had wished for and was sorely sorrowful I received. It’s the kind of bedtime story you tell your children if you hate them and want them to wet the bed so you have a viable excuse for beating them.
Actually, it’s more like a librarian who has run the gamut of her storytime selections, decided to get drunk on applejack brandy, and attempts to drunkenly relate a story her grandmother once told her, only to sober up towards the end from the hateful and aghast scowls of the parents still left and then managing to make it all happily ever after despite all logic to the contrary. The original legend of the selkie is enough to make the merkins of the Jezebel gals go all bristly like a pissed kitten. Selkies are seals who can transform themselves into people and go walking around on land. A fisherman typically finds their seal coats and hides them or burns them, which means the selkie can never return to the sea or to their selkie husbands, and thus must become the wives of the fishermen. But don’t worry, selkies trapped into indentured marritude apparently make wonderful wives, even if they spend inordinate amounts of time staring wistfully off into the ocean. However, if the seal coats are found or returned, the selkie can revert back to Team Andre and splash merrily back to their reggae singing kingdom under the sea. There’s also some business about seven tears and seven years, and also selkies can grant one wish. I’m paraphrasing; I’ve been at the schnapps.
In Ondine, Syracuse (Colin Farrell) is a lonely fisherman trawling the Irish coast with his boat and lobster pots. Everyone in the town calls him Circus because he used to be a clown, but not the funny ha-ha pie-in-the-kisser kind but the get-so-drunk-you-piss-your-pants-and-every-points-and-laughs-at-you kind. You know. Bozo the Lohan. Into Circus’s net should get swept up a young girl (Alicja Bachleda) who he gives CPR and brings back to life. The mysterious young girl can’t remember her name or where she’s from, only that she doesn’t want to be seen by anyone. Circus spirits her away to his mother’s old house and gives her clothes and a bed to sleep in. This, of course, means she will instantly fall in love with him and let him call her Ondine, which means “from the sea.”
Since this is an Irish lullaby, it wouldn’t be replete without pathos and woe. Circus leaves Ondine at the house and goes to the home of his shrewish lush ex-wife Maura (Dervla Kirwan) and her live-in beau Alex (Tony Curran — the Invisible Man from League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) to pick up his young daughter Annie (Alison Barry) and her wheelchair to take her for a charity round of dialysis and to get her new electric wheelchair. While getting the old blood cleaned, Circus regales Annie with the story of Ondine. Daddy found a girl in the water and now he’s keeping her and she’s pretty and I don’t know what happens next. Annie tells him this is a pretty shite story. This is just one of the many reasons we love Annie.
Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes, but Ondine just sings to them and makes them end up in Circus’s net, so he can sell them and make money. He decides to keep Ondine around, so he steals her clothing from the local woman’s clothing store, which gives us excuses to watch the gorgeous and leggy girl strut around in her underthings. Jordan’s kind of known for championing off-kilter sexuality, but it’s even too much for him to squoosh in to what’s seemingly a children’s story. Sharp Annie immediately figures out that Ondine’s a selkie, and…well, that’s pretty much it for the next hour or so.
There’s more, so many things I would love to despoil just to discuss their sheer unrelenting awfulness, but Jordan tries to stretch his story too thin to encompass all the things he wants to say. And there’s plenty, all of which are totally unnecessary. His actors do a fine job with what they are given. Farrell’s about as good as his directors these days, so get him in there with an Oscar worthy one and he’ll win the Oscar. Bachleda looks pretty and looks scared, which is all the script really asks of her. I don’t know that Jordan knows how to write for women, which kind of amazes me because of what he can do with transvestites. Stephen Rea pops up as a priest because Neil Jordan knows how and when to call in favors. And Alison Barry, the little girl playing Annie, continues this amazing trend of incredible young actresses in movies that I’ve been witnessing this year. I would almost recommend watching the movie just for her performance. Only it’s really not worth it.
Neil Jordan has never lived up to the promise of his reputation after The Crying Game, which was the original Brokeback Mountain joke. If you want to see the selkie legend done right, watch John Sayles’ The Secret of Roan Inish, because even with the battered and kept wife story, it makes Ireland glisten like the scales of a swordfish leaping out of an ocean spray. If you want to shove your hand down the gullet of a selkie and yank it inside out, you’re going to get a smushy handful of stinky seal guts and a horrible muddied mess, which is Ondine.