Serving up sea creatures, seal coats, alcoholism, redemption and fishnet stockings, Neil Jordan’s “Ondine” is two things: A briny fable that takes atmospheric advantage of appealing sea mythology and a small-town slice-of-life story about how people need to see magic in their mundane environs.
Jordan delivers just a puff of a story, but about two-thirds through, his fondness for dark undercurrents and gift for off-kilter charm produce a captivating blend of material and mist. Eventually, however, a shift into action-thriller terrain breaks the spell.
Like many of Jordan’s films — including “Mona Lisa,” “The Crying Game” and “Interview With the Vampire” — the movie has an immersing setting and a plot that mixes fairy-tale elements with realistic, gritty factors.
Expect to see dark character histories, people feeling like outsiders, illness and a romantic heroine with a hidden pivotal identity.
The story transpires in an Irish fishing village, under perpetually and exquisitely gray skies.
Syracuse (Colin Farrell), an alcoholic fisherman who has sobered up for the sake of his ailing young daughter, Annie (Alison Barry), catches in his net an ethereal young woman called Ondine (Alicja Bachleda).
Soon, Ondine is singing to the sea, and Syracuse’s nets are filled with salmon.
Annie, who lives with her bitter mother (Derva Kirwan) and needs a kidney transplant, believes Ondine is a selkie (a mythical seallike creature that can take human form) and derives hope from Ondine’s presence.
Syracuse, meanwhile, is falling in love with Ondine.
The picture darkens when a sinister stranger from Ondine’s past arrives.
When focusing on its setting and the sea, the film is absorbing and entertaining — whether a regatta is taking place or, in one of numerous Jordan whimsies, Ondine is intrigued by fishnet hose.
Cinematographer Christopher Doyle makes the movie a visual stunner, presenting gray weather in ways that simultaneously convey the dreariness of small-town life and suggest an electrically charged atmosphere capable of engendering magic.
Unfortunately, there isn’t enough substance or depth to seriously sustain the tale, and in the final act, when the movie becomes a lackluster thriller, the enchantment dissolves quickly. Ondine’s origins are revealed in a rushed, disappointing manner, and the film, initially a charmer, leaves the viewer feeling beached.
Performances are effective, even if Annie’s movie-kid precociousness is hard to buy and Ondine seems to do little besides clean the house and appear in a sea-soaked dress.
Farrell’s Syracuse is likable and quietly charismatic. Most entertaining is Jordan regular Stephen Rea, in a droll turn as a priest.
Ondine (2½ stars)
Starring Colin Farrell, Alicja Bachleda, Alison Barry, Stephen Rea
Written and directed by Neil Jordan
Running time 1 hour 53 minutes