Neil Jordan taps into myth as a metaphor
By Armond White
Fantasy has become the mode by which today’s highly hyped F/X and animation deceive audiences into not-thinking. Yet Neil Jordan’s Ondine—a modern-day fantasy about an Irish fisherman who believes he has rescued a mermaid in his net—uses no CGI. Its real-life, sensuous imagery prompts more than thought: Jordan’s updated Celtic myth provokes erotic, spiritual consciousness. It’s an adult fantasy whose beauty invites both dreamlike surrender and rationality—as the best cinema always does.
Sea grunt Syracuse (Colin Farrell) has been through the rigors of bad marriage and a reckless youth. He’s susceptible to the myth about the mysterious Ondine (Alicja Bachleda)—who embodies the legendary water spirit thought to change or endanger men’s souls—out of the open-mindedness that has pegged him as a dreamer and a working-class fool. Still, Syracuse has admirable yearnings—an erotic capacity evident in his chivalrous attraction to Ondine and protective affection for his daughter Annie (Alison Barry). Jordan uses both father and daughter’s entrancement with Ondine to illustrate the still-vital roots of Irish culture. Surviving the toil and confusions of daily life, Syracuse and Annie’s ability to desire and aspire is a sign of moral intelligence.
Jordan places their folksy conviction in a seaside town filled with feisty Irish types. He can’t disguise the commercial contrivance—the plot’s noirish peril gives all that mooniness some tension—yet his real aim is to convey the characters’ emotional buoyancy: what in a land-locked story would make Syracuse and Annie “people of the soil.” But in Jordan’s poetic, water-themed caprice, the film’s blue/green, aqua/celestial design suggests baptism. There’s constant vertiginous motion and a wavelike flow of humor and drama, reality and possibility—as when Annie’s wheelchair goes out of control. These characters triumph over mundane routine by joshing, wishing and coping; their interpersonal faith gets rejuvenated. Ondine offers a rare occasion to observe that misunderstood concept “redemption” in the way Jordan’s fairytale recovers the thrall of modern storytelling.
The exact nature of Jordan’s cunning comes from his fondness for legends and his erotic-ethnic fascination. Stalwart collaborator Stephen Rea plays a priest who empathizes with Syracuse and Annie’s confessions, but Colin Farrell embodies the archetypal Irish seeker. Farrell’s made substantive, underappreciated contributions to other good movies (Alexander, Phone Booth, Minority Report, The New World, Ask the Dust and his singing in Crazy Heart was that unoriginal film’s most credible performance). Now, years past his ingénue period, Ondine uses Farrell’s commonness—his grimy glamour—as part of its roots essence.
Jordan lets us see through Syracuse’s eyes and the vision goes beyond tribal superstition. Syracuse and Annie share yearning for fulfillment and beauty that is tentatively religious. Jordan’s update uses the Ondine myth as a metaphor for what’s missing from modern lives. He knows myth matters for how it defines human experience, not mere excitement—as in cheap comic book/Hollywood lore. Connection through fantasy—not magical CGI transformation—is what Syracuse and Annie seek with Ondine. The foreign yet lissome Bachleda is very fleshly; the mystery of her past is part of the sexual power and potential change she brings to port. Her exoticism is not just a plot point—she’s stalked by some distant, unknown trouble—it beckons sympathy just like those female Ukrainian immigrants in Revanche, Transporter 3 and Jordan’s The Good Thief, who haunt modern Europe’s consciousness.
Jordan, sometimes novelist and excellent short story writer, feels as much about our need for myth as Jorge Luis Borges, but he’s livelier, sexier and cinematically visionary. Mythology enhances Jordan’s view of life—sweeping away Hollywood’s flashflood of special effects fantasies that exploit our mythological need without viewers understanding precisely what that need is. Jordan’s grown-up sense of myth is stated in Annie’s endearing assessment of her father’s romantic adventure. Ondine closes with her innocent wisdom and essential sophistication. Today’s audiences think fantasy should look real; Jordan knows it only needs to be believed. There’s a difference.
Directed by Neil Jordan
Runtime: 111 min.