Part of the appeal of the fairy tale for audiences -- children and adults alike -- is that in the end the good will always triumph over the bad in some fashion or another. The princess will be saved and marry the handsome knight, the bad guy will be appropriately punished, and the humorous sidekicks will get the last laugh. So how about a modern fairy tale that plays on some of your preconceived notions in its story? Either you're going to buy into the story or not, and the movie's success is going to sink or swim with that idea.
A struggling fisherman in Ireland, Syracuse (Colin Farrell) is trying to get his life back on track after years of alcoholism that ended up destroying his marriage. He's hit quite the unlucky streak though and can't seem to do anything right, until one day he lucks into the strangest of situations. While fishing and bringing his nets in, he finds a beautiful young woman in the nets. She claims her name is Ondine (Alicja Bachleda) but doesn't want anyone to know who she is or where she's from. Stranger though, Ondine seems like a good luck charm to Syracuse -- dubbed 'Circus' by the townspeople -- as he can do no wrong. His daughter, Annie (Alison Barry), believes Ondine comes from the sea, but he doesn't know what to make of her. All he knows is that as he cares for and looks out for her, he develops real feelings for her. But what is she hiding, if anything?
Filming in Ireland is always a good start for a movie because there are few places as beautiful as that country. Director Neil Jordan films his story like the little Irish town Syracuse lives in is another key character. It's a small, tight knit town where everyone knows everyone (for better or worse). Granted, it isn't the sunniest movie around, but the lush, green Irish landscapes along the coast can be breathtaking to look at. From start to almost finish, it is a low key movie with a soothing musical score from composer Kjartan Sveinsson setting the soft tone. There is a folksy, lyrical rhythm to the story that reminded me of so many movies from the late 1960s and early 1970s that almost lulled you into a sense of comfort. If anything, the pacing can be a tad on the slow side as everything is set in motion.
The premise for the fairy tale is Ondine's situation. Syracuse's daughter Annie believes she is a mermaid or a selkie, a creature from the sea. Jordan doesn't give too many clues as to Ondine's true self, keeping you guessing. Is there any chance, even the slimmest of chances, that she is in fact a mythological creature venturing onto land to live with people? That's what kept me interested through some of the slower portions of the movie, that feeling of wanting background on Ondine. When the truth comes out, you can't help but be disappointed, or at least I was in a big way. I can't decide if it would have been better had Jordan actually kept us in the dark, let each individual viewer make up their own mind about the character. Instead, the reveal caps off a disappointing last half hour that really comes out of left field.
Now however you may feel about the truth about Ondine and her background, the key to the character is her relationship with Farrell's Syracuse. These are two lost souls struggling with their lot in life who end up finding each other. Call it a fairy tale or just a good old fashioned love story, but the movie works because of Farrell and Bachleda and their chemistry together. Farrell has a knack for playing these tortured individuals trying desperately to cope with their problems, and making those characters likable in the process. Polish actress/singer Bachleda makes Ondine vulnerable, innocent and believable, always keeping you guessing. She's also drop dead gorgeous which never hurts. Making her big-screen debut, Barry is a scene-stealer as young Annie, Syracuse's daughter waiting on a kidney transplant. The young actress definitely has a career ahead of her if she so chooses.
If you could cut a movie down the middle and split it into two parts, that's what would work here. The first 60 minutes are more of that lyrical, whimsical fairy tale with a lighter, emotional tone. The last 45 minutes do a quick swerve in the other direction, taking the movie to a place where it probably didn't need to go. I don't know the solution, but the finale dragged on and on with no end in sight. When the end does come, it's disappointing. Still, it's worth a mild recommendation mostly for the spot-on casting and the performances delivered by the three stars.
Ondine <---trailer (2009): ** 1/2 /****