Colin Farrell plays an Irish fisherman in writer-director Neil Jordan’s Ondine, and the way he carries himself in the opening shots — stringy hair and a downturned mouth resting on top of a perpetual slouch—suggests he’s become used to drawing back empty nets most days. This, however, is not such a day. Amidst a handful of a fish, his haul includes the apparently lifeless body of a young woman (Alicja Bachleda) who surprises him a second time by stirring. After he revives her, she looks panicked then relieved when he promises to take her to his mother’s home, far away from the eyes of the world. Who is she? Where did she come from? Bachleda offers no answers and may not even know herself. But Farrell’s daughter (Alison Barry), a spirited girl in spite of the failing kidney that keeps her wheelchair-bound much of the time, thinks she has an answer. Barry knows about selkies, seal women who can take off their coats, assume human form and, if they like, settle down with what they call landsmen, at least for a little while.
She might be right. Bachleda has an otherworldly beauty and she makes Farrell’s life take a fairy tale turn. She sings in an unrecognizable language from the side of his boat and his traps and nets become full. That slouch disappears, too, as does a sense he’s a man whom life has punished for doing the right thing, having given up drinking but losing his daughter to his self-destructive wife anyway. But it’s not clear exactly what’s going on and even less clear whether it will last as Jordan works the tension between the possibility of magic and a world that’s given up hoping for much. Bachleda surfaces under unforgiving steel-grey skies in a cluttered coastal corner of Ireland where whiskey bottles line the streets. Miracles seem less plausible there than most places.
Working with cinematographer Christopher Doyle—who here uses a rainy color scheme and the same kind of found compositions and handheld camerawork familiar from his Wong Kar-Wai collaborations—Jordan withholds answers for a long while, letting the film dwell instead on Farrell’s slow discovery that life can still offer surprises, and pleasure, and Bachleda’s gradual integration into her new surroundings. Ondine looks heavy and it ends up feeling a little slight, but between those two extremes there’s a beguiling siren song of a movie about the way the unexpected has a way of intruding on even the most fatalistic lives.