A gentle Irish fairy tale full of feeling
‘Ondine’’ is a fairy tale for grown-ups who need one. It’s one of Neil Jordan’s gentlest movies, but it continues the Irish filmmaker’s intermittent, career-long theme of spiritually exhausted men finding renewal in women who aren’t quite what they seem. “The Crying Game,’’ of course, was Jordan’s most extreme version of the tale, but the femme fatale at the center of “Ondine’’ is assuredly a woman. At least, temporarily. The rest of the time she may or may not be a seal.
Among the film’s pleasures is a disarmingly tender performance from the new, improved Colin Farrell. A few years back, the actor was briefly Hollywood’s Next Big Thing, and we all know how that usually turns out (in this case, a ridiculous supervillain costume in “Daredevil,’’ the lead in the ridiculous Oliver Stone epic “Alexander,’’ and a ridiculous amount of ink devoted to his off-camera misbehavior). Since his turn as the hapless brother in “Cassandra’s Dream,’’ though, Farrell has been exploring hesitance and loss, and even his country-music superstar in last year’s “Crazy Heart’’ was humble enough to atone for past sins.
In “Ondine,’’ the actor plays a small-town fisherman named Syracuse, but everyone calls him Circus since they need a village clown. A divorced alcoholic two years off the bottle, Syracuse is trying hard to turn his life around and takes his trawler out every morning hoping for the best. But the fish aren’t coming, and neither is respect.
The movie begins with a splash: the fisherman pulling a mermaid up in his net. No, not a mermaid exactly, but perhaps a selkie, one of the seal-women of local legend and John Sayles’s 1994 “The Secret of Roan Inish,’’ whose grounded whimsy this film shares. She calls herself Ondine (Alicja Bachleda) and when she sings the fish practically jump into Syracuse’s boat.
What’s a good ex-Catholic to do but hit the confessional? Among the wittiest scenes in “Ondine’’ are the hero’s regular visits to the village priest (Stephen Rea, who has been in Neil Jordan-land before and understands how high to arch his eyebrows). Syracuse knows the good father won’t spread his tales of mythical sea-sirens, even if Ondine has moved into her savior’s seaside cottage by then and made herself at home. Her gradual coming-out to the town’s bewildered, bewitched citizens is the film’s most felicitous conceit.
A more ordinary conceit is the character of Syracuse’s daughter, Annie (Alison Barry), a sweet but overly precocious tyke in a wheelchair. Her kidneys are failing but her mind is abuzz with the healing possibilities — emotional, physical, romantic — of selkies. The actress is a trouper, and she just barely keeps the fancifulness of “Ondine’’ from curdling into sentimentality.
Besides, the feelings between the fisherman and his find are so touchingly, almost wordlessly sketched that they create a privileged glow that envelops the whole movie. Farrell and Bachleda — a lovely Polish actress who has been working in European films for a decade — obviously felt something, too, and as of last fall they’re the parents of a baby boy. The onscreen attraction between the two isn’t the usual movie sort that announces itself to an accompaniment of sunsets and string sections. Their chemistry is private, half-heard — none of our business, really.
Toward the end of “Ondine,’’ the real world intrudes in the form of tidy explanations and villainous men, but the film is gracious enough to suggest we get the fairy-tale endings we deserve. The cinematography by the great Christopher Doyle is gray and subtle and tinted with fantastic colors, and it holds us halfway between sad reality and happy-ever-after. It takes a lot of skill to keep an audience suspended like that — a lot of nerve, too — but the characters (and, one suspects, the filmmakers) have seen enough to appreciate the beauty of the effort.
Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com.