Dir. Neil Jordan
(2010, PG-13, 103 min)
★ ★

Watching Ondine reminded me a bit of Hayao Miyazaki’s Ponyo, which was also about a mystical creature from the sea, but perhaps because that film was animated it was easier to accept its flights of fancy. Filled with colorful, otherworldly imagery, it lent itself to an easy suspension of disbelief. Ondine, however, keeps one foot in fantasy and the other in the hardscrabble reality of an Irish seaside town, making neither world especially convincing. Eventually it comes off the fence and commits to one world in a jarring development that feels like an entirely different film taking over.

The story opens with a fisherman named Syracuse (Colin Farrell), whom everyone calls Circus because of his chaotic history of alcoholism, even the priest to whom he confesses (Stephen Rea), less out of a need for absolution than out of a need for someone to talk to who won’t gossip to the rest of the close-knit town. He has been sober for more than two years, but his ex-wife and her current boyfriend are still heavy drinkers; they have custody of his daughter, Annie (Alison Barry), who is the kind of cloyingly precocious movie tyke who says things like, “This town is what you would call sartorially challenged.” If that’s not enough, the film also inflicts her with a kidney disease and puts her in a wheelchair. She’s a full-frontal assault of tragic adorableness.

One day, Syracuse finds a surprise in his fishnet: an amnesiac young woman who calls herself Ondine (Alicja Bachleda) after a species of water nymph from European folklore. Annie believes she’s really a selkie, a mythic creature of Scottish origin that emerges from the sea, removes its seal skin, and falls in love with a land-dwelling man. Ondine doesn’t confirm or deny this. She’s coy, secretive. She goes along with their beliefs, and magical things seem to happen when she’s around.

The film is written and directed by Neil Jordan, whose previous work – including The Brave One, The End of the Affair, and most famously The Crying Game – wouldn’t lead one to expect a lighthearted romantic lark, and he approaches it indecisively. There’s nothing especially meaningful about his blending of realism, sentimentality, and the supernatural – only confusion. Like Ondine herself, he’s coy about what her story really is, and when he decides, it’s an anticlimax. The mysteries of the deep, we discover, are not as interesting as we thought they were.