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FISHER OF WOMEN: Colin Farrell is a seaman with a waterwoman problem and Stephen Rea his priest in 'Ondine.'

Sea Changes

Neil Jordan's new film proves a saltwater fairy tale for unrepentant romantics

By Christina Waters

LIKE ALL authentic fairy tales, Ondine eases into its center, starting slow and then gathering narrative power. Neil Jordan's film glistens with beautiful images that seep into our limbic consciousness—none more gorgeous than the film's opening shot of a solitary fisherman gliding through the Irish coastal fog. Drawing up his net, he finds that it contains not only fish but a woman as well. The sight of the lovely Alicja Bachleda (the Ondine of the title) curled up la Klimt in a bed of silver fish is utterly primal. Our fisherman, a hard-luck villager named Syracuse (Colin Farrell), brings her back to life, and the neo-fairy-tale mystery quickens.

With her fear of other people and her strangely unplaceable accent, Ondine turns out to be a complete mystery. So the fisherman hides her in the cottage once belonging to his mother, where she swims in the bottle-green cove waters and, in classic Grimm Brothers fashion, tidies up the house. Out on the fishing boat, Ondine brings Syracuse unexpected luck. As she sings in an unknown language, his traps miraculously fill up with lobsters, his nets with a wealth of fish. We begin to wonder whether she might not actually be some sort of a magical sea creature.

Syracuse's young daughter Annie (a wise sprite played by Allison Barry) certainly believes that Ondine is a water creature, a selkie, who has come ashore to live among the humans. Compassionate yet pessimistic, Syracuse is a gentle father to Annie, who lives with her mother (a splendidly tough Dervla Kirwan) and mom's boyfriend, played with coarse charm by Tony Curran. The girl, suffering from kidney failure, is also wheelchair-bound, which leaves her plenty of time to read up on the watery lore of selkies. After a clandestine meeting, little Annie and Ondine become instantly drawn to each other, and just as quickly Syracuse and Ondine fall in love.

Keeping the story crisp are scenes, laced throughout Ondine, in which Syracuse details his unfolding romance at confession to the local priest, a wryly cast Stephen Rea. Here the smart script by Jordan (Breakfast on Pluto, The Crying Game) acquires sharp edges, both in its bone-dry humor and in its refusal to cave in to the sweetness of the story. Farrell is completely sensitive to his character's troubled psychology—"Misery's easy," notes his priest. "Happiness you have to work at." Responding to sudden good fortune with quick smiles and complete surrender, Farrell is utterly appealing. He's also a native Irishman who's clearly at home in the rugged poetry of the island's southwest coast, and in the character of a former drunk, he has found yet another vehicle for his unconventional gifts.

As the mysterious water woman, Bachleda is an actor whose face changes like the tides, from ordinary to incandescent, in a single shot. Cinematographer Doyle misses no opportunity to exploit the abundant natural beauty both of Ireland's craggy coastline and of Bachleda's opulent curves. Many shots amount to atmospheric lingerie ads—Victoria's Secret does the Emerald Isle. In one clever visual pun, Ondine plunges her hand into a fishnet stocking, her stretched out fingers momentarily forming a webbed hand.

But all fairy tales need a villain, and Ondine's arrives in the form of a stranger who shows up haunting the docks, and who might be Ondine's foreign husband. Or not. The ensuing crisis is both rough and surprising, but the ending is pure fairy tale. Jordan's film lacks the complex sophistication of The Crying Game, but it does give Colin Farrell a chance to win us all over again. Shameless or not, the film is a bewitching enticement to make travel plans immediately for the land of folklore, mermaids and Guinness.

ONDINE (PG-13; 111 min.), directed and written by Neil Jordan and starring Colin Farrell, Stephen Rea and Alicja Bachleda, opens Friday at the Nickelodeon in Santa Cruz.

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