The story of Ondine uses Irish folklore about the selkie as its central theme, and the tale is so beautifully told in imagery and dialogue that I was immediately enchanted and willing to embrace it as truth, even when the central character continued to question. According to legend, selkies are seals who are able to shed their outer skins and become human for a time. They must only have contact with one particular human for a short period of time and then must reclaim their seal coat and return to the sea. Should the skin be lost or hidden, the selkies are bound to their individual humans and must live in the human form for life. In the film, Colin Farrell plays Syracuse, a fisherman who pulls up his nets one day to find a woman has become entangled within. She tells him only that her name is Ondine (meaning, “of the sea”) but says nothing more about where she came from. When other boats approach them on the water, she quickly scurries out of sight, telling Syracuse that she cannot be seen by anyone but him. Though he is confused and curious, Syracuse respects her wishes and hides her away in his family’s empty seaside cottage. Over time he comes to believe she just might be a sea creature after all since her melodic singing begins to fill his nets in a way that had never occurred before in his lifetime.
Alongside the story of Syracuse and Ondine is his young, precocious daughter Annie. She is a child with much difficulty in her life and yet she is the one voice of reason in Syracuse’s world. He is a downtrodden soul desperately trying to bring himself up from a former life of alcoholism and a destructive marriage to Annie’s mother, while Annie is a perpetually optimistic spirit who speaks the truth and prods her father in his quest to be a better man. She quickly suspects that Syracuse is hiding something important and discovers Ondine for herself, and it is Annie who first mentions the selkie myth and begins to set everyone’s mind on the idea. But in the end the movie becomes far more the story of Syracuse’s relationships and struggles with life, and the folklore simply serves to create a dreamlike viewing experience.
I was enchanted within moments of seeing the first trailer for the film early last year, and the entire movie only served to increase that feeling. Ondine is a mesmerizing film, full of misty waters off the Irish coast and simple but richly-layered characters. The actress who plays Ondine, Alicja Bachleda, is exquisite and easily convinces that she is a mythological creature, and Colin Farrell is at his quiet best as Syracuse. His performance encompasses his entire body, making him appear thinner and more frail than I’ve ever seen him. While watching him I had such a strong sense that he was playing a version closer to himself than he’s ever played before. He knows the pain of being broken, and he knows the struggles of sobriety, and in portraying Syracuse he was able to place all of those emotions into his posture and into sad, tired eyes. I don’t know that I’ve ever loved an actor more than I loved Farrell in this role. And between him and Bachleda’s natural grace, I found Ondine to be one of my favorites of all time. I’ve added it to my all-time movie list, in fact, because I was so thoroughly transfixed. Ondine is truly a fairy tale of the highest caliber and a film that I will recommend for the rest of my life.
image from IMDB, linked to source