The Tribeca Beat

Well the festival is almost halfway done, my first piece for Jewish Week is here, and I'll be writing from the festival through the rest of this week. Almost everything I've seen so far will be discussed in JWeek, but I did have the genuine pleasure of catching Neil Jordan's new film, Ondine, on Friday.

There has always been a fascinating tension in Jordan's work between a fairy-tale element in his storytelling and his choice of subject matter, and a flaky, perverse sexuality that underpins that tone. Ondine is one of the most likeable of his excursions into these intertwined realms. Syracuse (Colin Farrell) is a fisherman in a small Irish town, a recovering alcoholic with an ex-wife who still drinks and a precocious 11-year-old daughter, Annie (Allison Barry), whose kidney failure has left her in a wheelchair. At the beginning of the film, he is hauling in is nets after what looks like yet another day of failure when he sees that his catch includes a beautiful woman (Alicja Bachleda). Once revived, she seems to have total amnesia. Is she a selke, a Scottish sea-nymph? Annie is convinced and soon so is her father. On the other hand, mom's Scottish boyfriend (Tony Curran, in a charming but too-brief appearance) is skeptical; "So she swam from the Orkneys to be here," he gently needles Annie.

Jordan's fairy-tales have a way of colliding with the real world, which is where sexuality rears its familiar head in his films, and Ondine is no exception. Perhaps one should have expected as much, because this is one of the most sombre-looking fairy stories in film history. From the film's very first shot, images are shrouded in drab mists, overcast skies predominate and Jordan's palette consists mainly of gray-blue, blue-gray, gray and more gray. The lush green of the countryside is washed-out and interiors are either deeply shadowed or dully antiseptic.

This is the post-Celtic Tiger Ireland, and the casting of Farrell underlines the economic and emotional fall. Farrell projects a deep melancholy even in his most energetic roles and here he is a surprisingly passive figure, buffeted by forces beyond his control or comprehension. Syracuse is a committed twelve-stepper -- he goes to confession because "this town is too small to have an AA chapter" -- and he has definitely surrendered himself to a higher power. It's a sweet performance, detailed and finely worked, and his interactions with Stephen Rea as the local priest and the women in his life are among the highlights of the film. Jordan is happy to sit back and let the energies of those interactions carry the film rhythmically, and the result is a charming work with surprising emotional heft.

An aside: Ondine would make a fascinating double-bill with John Boorman's unreleased A Tiger's Tale, a more explicit reflection on the Irish economic collapse. Both films are visually and emotionally dark folktales in which the sea plays a major part. In a sense, the Boorman is an urban counterpart to Jordan's more rural tale, and between them they capture the tensions underpinning Ireland's difficult transition from countryside to city. Besides, the pairing of the two films would be a tacit reunion of Farrell with Brendan Gleeson, echoing their wonderful double act from In Bruges.

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