Sealed with a kiss
GLANCE AT most directors’ oeuvres and you will spot a few films that, rather than standing as major opuses, comes across as casual, off-the-cuff exercises. Neil Jordan’s The Miracle is one such film. Written during delays caused by the Hollywood writers’ strike, Ondine is very certainly another. (As it happens both films take place in Irish seaside towns, but let’s not seek thematic tendrils where none exist.)
Filmed with characteristic smoky grace by the great Chris Doyle, this strange, dreamy film stars Colin Farrell as Syracuse, a troubled Cork trawlerman struggling to stay off the booze. The film begins with the hero discovering an exotically accented women (Alicja Bachleda) curled among the herring in his net.
Syracuse introduces Ondine, as she is known, to his disabled daughter (Alison Barry), who begins to suspect that the stranger might be one of those mythical seal-women known to the ancient Celts as selkies. Sure enough, when Ondine sings, salmon leap into Syracuse’s net.
Jordan has taken some artistic risks with the material. This somewhat magical, fanciful version of west Cork – the quasi-poetic dialogue takes place uninterrupted by e-mail, video games or any other complications of the modern era – is the sort of imagined locale more likely to appeal to visiting foreign film-makers. But, aided by the Hong Kong-based Doyle’s outsider eye and a tender performance from Farrell, Jordan does (just about) manage to avoid sentimentalising the twinkly environment.
But Ondine’s unsure attitude towards its mythical conceit causes larger problems. The slippery, insecure story never quite clarifies how seriously we are to take the notion that the damp woman may be (essentially) a maritime fairy. On occasion, when the prose poetry flows, the idea seems perfectly plausible. Elsewhere the suggestion risks tipping the film into hilarious absurdity.
Ultimately the plot shakes itself together and ties up its loose ends into satisfactorily neat little bows. But Ondine still feels more like an accomplished sketch than a fully achieved masterwork.
Colin Farrell and Alicja Bachleda in Ondine