In 2006, in the movie Lady in the Water, director M. Night Shyamalan asked us to believe in narfs. Narfs, also known as water nymphs or naiads are mythological female creatures that preside over water sources like springs and streams. In the movie Ondine, director Neil Jordan asks us to believe in selkies. Selkies are seal-like creatures that when they shed their sealskins are for all appearances human. They hide their sealskin until they are ready to return to the sea.
Selkies certainly are implausible, but just as implausible is the bizarre experience that happens to Syracuse (played by Colin Farrell), a commercial fisherman who accidentally hauls in a woman in his fishing net. Ondine, the lady in his net, is real enough and when he jostles her, she turns out to be not quite but nearly dead. Ondine, played by the beautiful Alicja Bachleda, certainly seems lost and confused and can barely walk. She has no memory of where she has been but seems inordinately concerned about staying hidden. Syracuse, a gruff looking but otherwise gentlemanly fisherman, cannot help but find a soft spot in his heart for this young woman, because he has been missing romance in his life for a long time. His ex-wife may have custody of his daughter Annie (played by Alison Barry), but it is clear that Syracuse is the better parent. At least Syracuse stays sober while his ex-wife Maura spends nights and weekends in the taverns.
Annie is a precocious child. Ondine is not long settled in to the abandoned house that used to belong to Syracuse’s departed grandmother before Annie discovers and befriends Ondine. It is Annie, who recently learned of the legend of selkies in school, who suspects that Ondine is one of these mythical creatures. What else could possibly explain her loss of memory, her paranoia and her strong and almost instant natural affection for the scruffy Syracuse? Selkies are supposed to bond with a human and spend up to seven years as their mate.
No other explanation seems to make any sense. The odds of picking up a woman from a fishing net are astronomical, so her being a selkie seems plausible, even to Syracuse. If Ondine is a selkie, she seems to have all the attributes of one including a compelling affection for the sea. Moreover, she gloms onto her people (Syracuse and Annie) with genuine love and affection. Annie checks out all the books at the local library on selkies. She stays spunky despite the fact that her kidneys are failing, she needs regular dialysis and the odds of her getting a donor kidney are very long. With her electric wheelchair, she moves effortlessly through their village, while trying to tune out her mother (Dervla Kirwan) and her annoying stepfather. She appears to be channeling Nancy Drew.
While having a selkie as a lover appeals very much to Syracuse, and Ondine seems happy to accept her situation, too much real life continues to creep into this fairy tale. A mysterious man in black is seen in the village. Ondine seems to sense his presence and spends much of the movie hiding, but after a while, she cannot help but be seen by others. When a scary accident by a rogue car nearly kills his ex-wife, Syracuse senses that Ondine brings danger to his family and they must part. Yet genuine ambiguity remains about Ondine’s selkie status, particularly when Ondine brings in record catches for Syracuse, including non-native salmon. Toward the end of the movies, she also wishes for Annie to be cured, and against all odds Annie gets a healthy donor kidney.
The movie is largely absent the suspense and brushes with otherworldliness that we expect in a Shyamalan movie. The story is told very simply. The camera rarely strays from Syracuse, Annie and Ondine. It is hard to escape the feeling that something more nefarious has been going on. Ondine cannot be quite what she seems, although she has all the attributes. Yet, what else could explain her mystery? To find out invest 111 minutes in this movie. See a little of the Irish seashore as well, and walk in the shoes of the fisherman Syracuse, whose life is otherwise utterly ordinary and unmemorable.
Ondine is certainly not a bad movie, but it should not be mistaken for a Shyamalan-type movie. While reasonably well executed and with decent actors, in the hands of a more skilled director, I might have rated this movie higher. Instead, it’s a good and reasonably engaging movie, but in the end nothing particularly memorable. 3.0 on my four-point scale.