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On the coast of Cork, Syracuse is a divorced fisherman who has stopped drinking. His precocious daughter Annie has failing kidneys. One day, he finds a nearly-drowned young woman in his net; she calls herself Ondine and wants no one to see her. He puts her up in an isolated cottage that was his mother's. Annie discovers Ondine's presence and believes she is a selkie, a seal that turns human while on land. Syracuse is afraid to hope again.
According to the dictionary an 'ondine is a water nymph or water spirit, the elemental of water. They are usually found in forest pools and waterfalls. They have beautiful voices, which are sometimes heard over the sound of water. According to some legends, ondines cannot get a soul unless they marry a man and bear him a child. This aspect has led them to be a popular motif in romantic and tragic literature.' Another bit of background information that aids the viewer of this little rarity of a film, ONDINE, is the bit of folklore often referred to in the film - that Ondine is a 'selkie': 'In Irish folklore, there are many stories about creatures who can transform themselves from seals to humans. These beings are called selkies. The seals would come up onto rocks or beaches and take off their skins, revealing the humans underneath. There is no agreement among the stories of how often they could make this transformation. Some say it was once a year on Midsummer's Eve, while others say it could be every ninth night. Once ashore, the selkies were said to dance and sing in the moonlight. One of the most common themes found in selkie folklore is romantic tragedy. Selkie women were supposed to be so beautiful that no man could resist them. They were said to have perfect proportions and dark hair. They also made excellent wives. For this reason, one of the most common selkie stories is that of a man stealing a selkie woman's sealskin. Without her skin, she cannot return to the sea, and so she marries the human man and has children with him. She is a good wife and mother, but because her true home is in the sea, she always longs for it. In the stories, she ends up finding her sealskin that her husband has hidden, or one of her children unwittingly finds it and brings it to her. According to legend, once a selkie find her skin again, neither chains of steel nor chains of love can keep her from the sea. She returns to the ocean, usually leaving her children behind with their grief-stricken father'.
All of this information may seem redundant, but when a beautiful little film such as ONDINE, written and directed by the always excellent Neil Jordan, knowing the background helps support the manner in which the story is told and revealed. Syracuse (Colin Farrell) is a recovering alcoholic fisherman whose alcoholic wife has custody of his beloved daughter Annie (Allison Barry) who because of renal failure must be dialyzed frequently and spend her days in a motorized wheelchair while she awaits a kidney transplant. Syracuse focuses his life on Annie - until one day while fishing he brings up a beautiful girl in his nets, a frightened girl named Ondine (Alicja Bachleda, a brilliant Polish actress and singer from Mexico) who fears being seen by anyone. Syracuse protects and clothes her and secludes her in his dead mothers shack by the sea - until Annie discovers her, having researched everything she could fine at the library about the selkies. Annie decides Ondine is selkie who must bury her seal coat in the earth and thus gain seven years on land without having return to the sea. With this mixture of myth and reality the story moves along at a gentle pace: Syracuse frequents the priest (Stephen Rea) confessional (his only available semblance of an AA stabilizer in his small village), Annie and Ondine bond, Syracuse and Ondine fall in love (despite the myth's warning that every selkie has a husband), and the townsfolk begin to accept the strange happiness that has returned to Syracuse's heart. The plot then twists and the realities of the myth become known and the story progresses from a recreation of a mythical romance to the difficulties of a true romance.
The chemistry between Farrell and Bachleda and Farrell and Barry is extraordinary and palpable: they make the film sing. The haunting musical score is by Kjartan Sveinsson and the moody cinematography is by Christopher Doyle. Neil Jordan pulls all of these elements together into a film that will linger in memory - like the song Ondine sings. There have been novels, operas, ballets, and plays written based on this myth, but few capture its mystery the way this film does. It is a quiet little gem of art.
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