When a guy pulls a beautiful lady from the ocean in his fishing net, he's bound to jump to conclusions. Maybe she's not "like other girls." Maybe she's even—this being a small Irish coastal town where young lovelies don't just issue forth from the ocean like lobster or salmon—a mythical sea creature.
Neil Jordan’s Ondine is a contemporary fairy tale, but with touches of the gritty, dystopian worldview the gloomy Irish director has often brought to films like Mona Lisa, The Crying Game and The Brave One.
Syracuse (Colin Farrell) is the lucky fisherman, a recovered alcoholic who lives in his dead mother's house and shares with his harridan ex-wife custody of their wheelchair-bound, sickly daughter Annie (Alison Barry).
The arrival of Ondine (Polish actress Alicja Bachleda and Farrell's real-life partner), a lithe young thing with almond eyes and a smoking body, proves a nice remedy to Syracuse's bachelor malaise.
The visitor is equally enticing for Annie, who instantly embraces the notion that Ondine is an Irish spin on a mermaid— a selkie—a half seal/ half babe from the local folklore. Annie is soon brushing up on selkie lore and conspiring with the fishy lady to extend her stay on dry land.
The romance between the fisherman and his catch is Ondine's bread and butter. But while Bachleda is undeniably sexy—with a unique feline look and a beguilingly hard-to-place accent—her va-va-voom is hardly enough to hang a film on, try as Jordan might. Instead, it is the sweetly sparring Hepburn and Tracy relationship between Syracuse and the wickedly precocious Annie that gives the film its fleeting heart and soul.
The most fully drawn character in the film, Annie puts her adult counterparts to shame. She's prematurely wise but also harbors a little girl's belief in fairy tales, and embodies Ondine's best impulses: that liminal zone the film occupies between cold hard reality and dreamy wish fulfillment.
But Annie's intelligent wistfulness can't, unfortunately, protect her from the film's myriad resident predators. Nor can her quirky presence save Ondine from its fuzzy, listless quality and Jordan's directionless storytelling. (Also problematic are Irish accents as thick as porridge, which match the atmospheric gray, murky cinematography blow for blow.)
Jordan's story eventually loses its truck with fantasy for a grittier, less-beguiling reality. Any good feelings with his audience the director may build by suggesting Ondine as a contemporary fairy tale, soon sour as his story devolves into something else altogether.