Ondine (Magnolia Pictures, PG-13)

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Ondine works best when it stays in the dreamy realm of enchantment: when it ventures into the messy realities of modern life among the poor it becomes more pedestrian.

With Ondine, Neil Jordan balances on the knife edge between transcendence and preciousness. Fortunately the film comes down on the right side of that dichotomy thanks to excellent performances in key roles, a haunting score by Kjartan Sveinsson (keyboardist for Sigur Rós) and atmospheric cinematography by Christopher Doyle which takes full advantage of the cinematic qualities of Castletownbere, a coastal village in County Cork.

The story begins when Syracuse (an entirely believable Colin Farrell), a reformed alcoholic and none-too-successful fisherman, draws up his nets and finds a woman named Ondine (the suitably stunning Alicja Bachleda) inside. She’s blond and beautiful and very mysterious with a particular fear of being seen by others. Syracuse doesn’t know quite what to make of her but his daughter Annie (played with assurance by newcomer Alison Barry) has an explanation: Ondine is a Selkie, a creature from Celtic mythology who can live either on land or water and can change between human and seal form.

This explanation seems as good as any and as Ondine brings good luck to Syracuse (his fishing catches improve whenever she’s on the boat) and is a charming houseguest as well (as a divorced father with few to no friends in the small village, his personal life has certainly taken a turn for the better with her arrival) he’s willing to accept this version of events. Jordan plays with audience expectations—is this going to be a full-on fairy tale or is a Hardy Boys type of rational explanation lurking just around the corner?—which keeps things interesting while occasionally testing your good will and willingness to suspend disbelief. Let me put it this way: when a film makes a point of telling us that someone cannot swim, you can be sure that a crucial plot development will hinge on that information as sure as you can be sure than a gun placed on the mantelpiece in Act 1 must be fired by Act 3.

Ondine works best when it stays in the dreamy realm of enchantment: when it ventures into the messy realities of modern life among the poor it becomes more pedestrian. Jordan wrote the screenplay as well as directing so he has no one but himself to credit for the script’s magical moments nor to blame for its turns into the mundane. The precocious Annie suffers from kidney failure and gets about in a wheelchair while awaiting a transplant, which helps to explain her somewhat otherworldly air but can also feel like a gratuitous tug on the heartstrings. The excellent Dervla Kirwan does the best she can in the thankless role of Annie’s mother Maura, who is written as a one-note alcoholic. Stephen Rea does much better as the local priest who is a master of Irish logic and tolerates Syracuse using the confession as a substitute for AA meetings since their town is too small for a chapter. In the final accounting, Ondine may not be an out-and-out masterpiece but if you’re willing to give it the benefit of the doubt you will find that it delivers ample rewards in return for a little willing suspension of disbelief. | Sarah Boslaugh

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