Under Review: ‘Ondine’


Based on mysterious selkie mythology, this film is difficult to follow, hard to understand and just plain odd.

Yes, there are parts that are beautifully produced with an intense performance by Colin Farrell as Syracuse. However, I couldn’t understand some of the words spoken by the characters using the thick, quick (but delightfully lyrical) Irish brogue. Added to this was a script with an over-ambitious, wandering plot that ended up murky about the role of the shadowy mystery man and what Ondine really buried. In addition, to be honest, the film was just plain odd.

There are parts of this movie that are reminiscent of both Daryl Hannah, the mermaid in “Splash,” and the seal woman in the film “The Secret of Roan Inish.” A woman is found by a particular man, this man falls in love with her despite her mysterious past and more curious presence, and then a choice has to be made about love, commitment and what is truly important in life to make one fulfilled.

Ondine, portrayed with a beautiful accent and angelic, ethereal mystery by Alicja Bachleda, is referred to as a selkie, by definition a mythological shapeshifter with transformative powers to slip between both human and seal incarnations. The myth comes from Faroese, Icelandic, Irish, and Scottish folklore. The mythological metaphor is the conflict between freedom (in the sea) and the responsibilities of a family and partner (on the land).

A very interesting angle to the selkie myth is that the power of the selkie resides in the pelt that can be removed at will. Without access to the seal skin, freedom, the selkie loses power.

The problem is that human contact and habituation to land-dwelling has the consequence of stripping the selkie of its power and ultimate freedom. So, after an amount of time, even if a selkie marries and has children, s/he feels a nostalgic calling to return to the sea. The only assurance to remaining with humans is if the seal-skin is stolen, hidden or burned.

However, once back in the sea the selkie, either male or female, loses the ability to reconnect with the specific landsmen s/he loved for seven years. The only recourse for the human, desiring to gain control of this tragedy and love object, is to confiscate the selkie’s pelt so that a return to sealife is impossible.

In the film Farrell’s lonely little girl, played by sweet Alison Barry, undergoes periodic dialysis for kidney failure and spends most of her time in a wheelchair to conserve her energy. While her handicap and resultant restrictions are obvious, Syracuse suffers parallel pain and alienation.

With the introduction of Ondine, both father and daughter become infused with a greater interest in living life and begin to have hopes and dreams.

Despite guarded but positive reviews of the trailer and film clips by IJM writers Rachel Coyne and Amanda Koehler, the exquisite previews for this film captivate the viewer with their simple acoustic guitar soundtrack, dark rich Irish coastal scenes and passionate conflicted acting by Farrell. The myth of the selkie and Bachleda’s ethereal singing to bring the fish to her fisherman’s net added to the enchantment.

The Bottom Line

However, once I viewed the film my perspective on the film changed. To be fair, I did have difficulty understanding the dialogue and the plot. There was also some weak acting by some members of the supporting cast (though the interaction of the priest and Farrell was particularly entertaining) making the movie a disappointment.

Keeping it honest, even though the concept for this film had great potential, the script and delivery seem significantly rushed and under-developed. This seems to be a director problem. Farrell and Bachleda, with their strong, charismatic presence, simply couldn’t overcome an otherwise weak cast, difficult-to understand brogue and problematic script.

Production Credits

Web site:
Director: Neil Jordan
Cast: Colin Farrell, Alicja Bachleda, Alison Barry
Producers: Neil Jordan, Ben Browning, James Flynn
Writer: Neil Jordan
Distributed: Magnolia Pictures

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