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Fish out of Water

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars.

Ondine, the latest film from director Neil Jordan (Interview with a Vampire, The Crying Game, The Company of Wolves), brings him back to his native Ireland for a magical-realist fable centered on a mermaid-like selkie — a half-human, half-seal creature from Irish folklore.

Bolstered by natural performances, Christopher Doyle’s cinematography, and a story that balances magic and realism, Ondine is a worthwhile, if ultimately flawed, addition to Jordon’s oeuvre.

Syracuse (Colin Farrell), a fisherman by trade and a recovering alcoholic, finds a young woman (Alicja Bachleda) caught in the nets of his fishing boat. She claims she doesn’t remember her name or anything about her past. She refuses medical attention and hides when other boats approach. She calls herself Ondine (a water nymph or elemental).

Syracuse’s initial reluctance gives way to natural curiosity. Since she refuses contact with anyone else, Syracuse takes her to his late mother’s house, where she promptly settles in, creating an idealized domesticity in the process. Ondine’s singing seems to draw lobsters and salmon to Syracuse’s nets.

Nicknamed “Circus” for his alcoholic antics, Syracuse stopped drinking when his daughter, Annie (Alison Barry), became seriously ill. Annie needs dialysis every week and needs a wheelchair to get around. She is typically precocious, smarter and more perceptive than anyone else her own age, prone to using big words. She also suspects a kernel of truth in Syracuse’s supposedly made-up story about a woman rescued by a fisherman.

Annie’s mother and Syracuse’s ex-wife (and alcoholic), Maura (Dervla Kirwan), naturally disapproves of stories of water-babies and selkies, more so when she learns about Ondine’s existence.

As with any non-Disney fairy tale, there’s a dark, shadow figure (Emil Hostina) threatening a happily every after for Syracuse, Ondine, and Annie. Is he, as Annie suggests, Ondine’s selkie husband in human form, in the village to reclaim his lost wife or something much more mundane? Jordan leaves Ondine’s real identity unresolved for almost 90 minutes (Ondine runs 111-minutes, including credits), then unfortunately resolves every open question, and not for the better. He also tacks on an ending that feels false and forced (because it is).

Even with a misjudged third act, Ondine benefits from one of Farrell’s better performances. He’s more grounded, less preening and self-satisfied here than in his American films where he tended to play egotists. He seems freed by not appearing in a mega-budgeted American film with a predictable storyline and an even more predictable character arc.

Model-turned-actress Bachleda (and Farrell’s current girlfriend) has an ethereal quality that suits Ondine’s mysterious past. Barry is effective, if occasionally too precocious, as Annie. Long-time Jordan regular Stephen Rea appears as the village priest and Syracuse’s lone confidante.

Jordan gives Ondine a languid, fluid pace, but it’s rarely dull or unengaging, thanks to Doyle’s cinematography. Doyle limits the color palette blues and grays. The perpetually overcast skies and seaside village and dock allow Doyle to compose a series of arresting imagery, none more striking than Syracuse’s startled, startling discovery of Ondine in his fishing nets.