If Neil Jordan's Ondine were a regular sort of movie, it probably would have opened with a sequence establishing what sort of person its hero was, showing him interacting with his ex-wife and his sickly daughter, chatting with the locals in the small Irish town where he lives, giving us a good sense of the baseline normality of the film's world. But Neil Jordan's Ondine is a Neil Jordan movie, which means he's more concerned with the integrity of the story, and thus he drops is in right at the exact moment the action ramps up, with all the exposition shuttled off to be woven in at a later point. It's a fast start that fits the movie quite well, given that in a certain way, it's mostly just a fairy tale. "Once upon a time, there was a fisherman, and one day he pulled a woman out of the sea in his nets."
When the fisherman, Syracuse (Colin Farrell) and the woman, an amnesiac calling herself Ondine, after a legendary figure (Alicja Bachleda) meet, it's in a scene heavy on spirited banter that skirts heavily on the edge of fatalism, and that basic construction - "high spirits skirting the edge of fatalism" - describes the film as a whole, mostly for the better, occasionally for the worse - much worse, in the case of the alarming, rattletrap climax that runs exactly counter to the charms of the movie up to that point. But everything except those three or four scenes near the end has such a breezy, playful sense of despair about it that I don't suppose most people who have been enjoying themselves up to that point are going to consider it a fatal flaw.
So, Syracuse - universally known as "Circus", his metaphorically-laden name of a great waterfront power in the ancient world giving way to imagery of a lumbering, ineffectual clown - brings Ondine home, and introduces her to his wry daughter Annie (Alison Barry), suffering from kidney failure. Combining preternatural wisdom with unbridled innocence in the way of a person in that wobbly period between childhood and adolescence, Annie concludes instantly that Ondine must be a selkie - a creature that can take the form of human or seal - and though neither Syracuse nor Ondine exactly believes her theory, they also don't exactly disbelieve it, because what other explanation can there be for Syracuse's unusually good fortune after the woman comes to live with him?
I'm not going to poke at the story, which is fragile as a soap bubble - as well it should be. The appeal of Ondine is very much its delicacy, both as magical realism love story and bleak story of broken people in a run-down community. The presence of a possibly enchanted woman in Syracuse's life is very much necessary, for he has a whole bushel-full of problems: besides his sick daughter, he's constantly straining for money, he's a recovering alcoholic, his ex-wife (Dervla Kirwan) is a current alcoholic with custody, with a lover (Tony Curran) no better than she is, and Syracuse's only friend appears to be the local priest (Stephen Rea) that he sees on a regular basis, theoretically for confession, although their conversations are less about sin and redemption and more just bullshitting about life and everything.
This could easily lend itself to wave upon wave of grim nastiness and harsh realism, but Jordan keeps the tone upbeat (his films are very often about worn-out low-class poor bastards, but only rarely does he allow them to be pleasant when he can instead go for searing, viz. Mona Lisa), largely on the strength of Farrell's wonderfully subtle performance, all easygoing pragmatism that is effortlessly charming in the way of that actor's best work, with just enough of the bittersweet to give it some bite. The best reason for seeing Ondine, without a doubt, is Farrell's ready charisma and chemistry with his co-stars, especially Barry and Rea; nearly all of the film's most entrancing scenes are nothing but dialogues delivered through a thick wall of Cork brogue, with the actors playing off of each other with such ease, such simplicity! it is somehow realistic even as it announces itself as so plainly written.
The tone of the movie's story extends to the way it was shot: Ondine is a predominately murky, gloomy movie, with just about every exterior scene, it seems, taking place at dusk or in the rain. Yet even as it is just about the greyest damn thing you will see anytime soon, it has a certain off-kilter beauty, thanks to beloved cinematographer Christopher Doyle, whose stock in trade is making grungy settings look somehow glamorous. Even as it captures the essence of the worn-out fishing community where the film takes place, Doyle's camera puts a sheen of fantasy over it all; it is not hard to believe, looking at the dramatic, otherworldly visuals, that the story of the selkie woman might be true, which makes it seem much less contrived and almost more inevitable when Syracuse finds himself accepting his daughter's tale as the best explanation for everything going on.
A slight film like this (slighter than anything Jordan has done in quite a long time, perhaps ever) can easily drift into dangerous territory, and Ondine does so semi-frequently: besides the out-of-place ending, the film suffers every time Jordan and Doyle try to do something "flashy", such as a brief hallucination, or anytime the mysterious man (Emil Hostina) following Ondine appears, or during that very same out-of-place ending. Not content to have the slightly grainy, slightly glossy grey and wet look hold, the filmmakers switch gears with narrative justification, admittedly, but without much aesthetic success: these certain moments clash with the rest of the film in a way that's more garish than illuminating.
And of course, the whole movie just sails away if the viewer wants something a bit more robust than magical realism, which has never been the easiest sell in movie history. Ondine certainly speaks, in its relaxed mood, to human truths, but the way that it gets there is certainly going to seem cloying and undercooked to some people. No way around it: it's exceedingly rare for a truly good movie to get that way by trying over-hard to make everyone content, and Jordan has ended up with a film that simply doesn't take as probing and serious a look at people in crisis as virtually all of his previous work; and yet, in those moments when it isn't stumbling about, trying too hard to impress us, it's hard to imagine Ondine doing what it does - playing at being a satisfying dark folktale with a quintessentially Irish sensibility - in a more wholly satisfying way.