The era of earnest fairy-tales for children quite possibly ended with the rise of “Shrek,” a cynically-minded franchise that replaced sincere, imaginative storytelling with mostly heartless parody. Even when the bitingly sarcastic approach succeeds – the fourth and ostensibly final “Shrek” movie has its fair share of pointed one-liners and clever sight gags – it sacrifices the magic of invention that made its cliché-filled target so alluring in the first place. (There’s nothing wrong with liking those particular clichés when they’re properly served, but even Tim Burton’s visually audacious “Alice in Wonderland” was a terribly self-aware imitation of the source material). Mainstream flights of fancy have grown thin in an age defined by constant eye-rolling cleverness. If Steven Spielberg made “E.T.” today, the mushy finish would’ve probably amounted to box office poison.
But while “Shrek” and its brethren replaced the fairy-tale for children, its application in the solid drama “Ondine” suggests that the genre lives on in the realm of adults. Neil Jordan’s softly affecting story follows Irish fisherman Syracuse (Colin Farrell) as he grows convinced he has caught an enchanted sea-woman (whose titular name comes from a mythological water nymph). Jordan, a veteran of fantasy for grown-ups, takes a dodgy approach to the material rather than making it literal: The hint of super-naturalism merely points to the emotional reality beneath the surface. So long as Jordan lingers in this undefined space between truth and fiction, “Ondine” works as a compellingly ambiguous fable.
The fairy-tale component of “Ondine” is a vessel both for the audience and for Syracuse, a damaged soul in need of escape from his fractured existence. Pejoratively known as “Circus” by the locals of his intimate community, he struggles to shake a past marred by alcoholism and marital strife. Now single, he drifts through the foggy landscape of Castletownbere, alternating between routine trips to sea and visits with his ailing ten-year-old daughter Annie(newcomer Alison Barry), who suffers from kidney failure. When he abruptly yanks an unconscious woman (Polish actress Alicja Bachleda) from the harsh waves in the movie’s opening scene, she quickly comes to represent his salvation, both from the specter of his past and the grim possibilities of his future.
The synopsis may suggest a typically sappy tale of redemption, but Jordan brings a lyrical quality to the proceedings through the burgeoning relationship between Syracuse and his mysterious aquatic discovery. She’s an entrancing figure to everyone around her, including Jordan’s camera, which situates the character in a lush environment dominated by greens and grays. The expressive palette is the result of first-rate cinematography by the great Christopher Doyle, the key craftsman behind the ethereal images of Wong Kar Wai’s entire filmography. Doyle turns “Ondine” into a picturesque look at countryside alienation, allowing Jordan to frame his sentimental plot in magical realist terms that lend a haunting beauty to Syracuse’s fragile life.
Unfortunately, Jordan’s script lacks the dimensionality of the movie’s overall concept. Syracuse’s daughter often comes across as too smart for her own good — or the movie’s own good, for that matter. “That’s a real shite story,” she complains when he tells her about his strange new companion. Later, when Ondine’s presence becomes further solidified in Syracuse’s life, Annie nails the underlying symbolism: “You sure this isn’t some weird wish fulfillment thing?” she moans, as if Jordan decided to critique his own fundamentally simple narrative.
However, before “Ondine” devolves into a trite by-the-numbers climax replete with cardboard villains and gun play, Jordan creates a unique experience that alternately engages with fairy-tales and comments on their appeal. After the uneven brutality of “The Brave One,” the director’s latest venture marks a return to his capacity for sympathizing with outcasts by lingering in their isolation. Farrell’s Syracuse belongs alongside the lonely protagonists of “The Crying Game” and “Breakfast on Pluto” in that he’s eternally fated to justify himself.
As a result, Farrell’s muted performance carries the movie. Jordan frequently places him in scenes with just one other character (Ondine, his daughter, his ex, and a condescending priest wittily portrayed by Stephen Rhea), foregrounding the fisherman’s personality. Syracuse’s likability sustains “Ondine” through its more contrived moments, and makes you root for the inevitable happy ending. Sadly, Jordan eventually abandons the ambiguity of its construction, leaving much to be desired in retrospect. When “Ondine” stops being a fairy-tale, its spell is broken.