All Neil Jordan films are fairy tales at heart, even The Crying Game and The Brave One. Myth fixates the Irish director, but he sees the universal in the archaic, updating the tall tale to modern times while retaining its unique moral and psychological quintessence. Ondine, which begins with an Irish fisherman named Syracuse (Colin Farrell) barely batting an eye after lifting a beautiful lass from the sea with his fishing net, is no exception. Trying to rationalize the mysterious woman's arrival, he tells his daughter a bedtime story. It begins, like most fairy tales do, with "Once upon a time." Syracuse's daughter, a sweetheart on the brink of kidney failure who too-precociously diagnoses her father with a case of "wish fulfillment," responds, "Does it always have to be 'Once upon a time'?"
Is Ondine (Alicja Bachleda) just a woman or is she a selkie, a seductive, skin-shedding creature found in Irish and Scottish mythology? Because she needs a miracle, little Annie (Alison Barry) would like to think so, delving into the local library's puny archive for more information about what this enigmatic woman could have brought with her to their seemingly remote corner of the world—besides, that is, a beautiful singing voice that helps to fill the fish traps Syracuse lifts from the sea. Though you don't doubt that this woman is just that, seemingly on the run from an equally mysterious man lingering in the film's periphery, her pained secrecy, serenity, and stunning goodness transfixes all who come in contact with her.
Christopher Doyle's cinematography is as muggy, depressed, and lived-in as Farrell's performance, but while you get a real sense for the story's off-the-beaten-path locale, the erratic editing, with its perpetual shifts in point of view, can feel counterintuitive, though you could say that the rhythm of the film is not unlike that of the queasiest of waves. But there's real beauty to Ondine's ambiguous sense of detail and understanding of how people relate to one another: Jordon never really harps on Syracuse's past or alcoholism, but you understand his agony and get a tangible feel for the bitterness of his relationship to his ex-wife when, after she suffers a terrible accident, gets him to take a drink for the first time in years. Jordon understands guilt as one of our more powerful weapons.
Jordan delights in subverting the clichés of the fairy tale. Ondine may be some kind of damsel in distress, but she saves Syracuse as much as he saves her—from the grime his deceased granny can no longer clean, the allure of drinking, and the hatefulness of his ex-wife. And what makes Annie's "once upon a time" line so exceptionally beautiful is what it reveals about our complex relationship to fairy tales. All such stories—no matter how unbelievable they've become the longer they've passed from generation to generation—were once based on some kind of truth, and believing in them becomes a gesture of faith, and for Annie, a matter of life and death. To put one's stock in them, to believe that they can manifest themselves in the present day, also means seriously investing in the future.
So, Ondine is strikingly suggestive, which comes as a relief after The Brave One's relentless narrative browbeating. How Syracuse responds to Ondine's existence is itself a mysterious thing: Whether she is a woman or a mythic version of one doesn't seem to matter to him, and though he's torn apart by the chaos she brings along with so much exultation, he's clearly bewitched by her questing for identity and grappling with destiny. In this way, this particular fairy tale that Jordan has spun feels especially fraught with existential questioning, regardless of whether it has a "happily ever after" or not.