This is an old, old story. The water-bride—whether we call her an ondine, a selkie, a swan maiden, a crane wife, or even the Little Mermaid—is one of those all but universal folkloric motifs that have accordingly crept into every corner of modern fantasy. In Ondine, director Neil Jordan has chosen a contemporary setting for his own version of the tale: Colin Farrell plays an Irish fisherman named Syracuse—not "Circus," the nickname from his days of drink that he's still trying to live down—who trawls up an exotic, half-drowned mystery woman in his net (Alicja Bachleda). The woman calls herself only "Ondine" when pressed for a name, and her single request is not to be seen by anyone in the small town other than Syracuse; he obliges by secreting her away in the conveniently secluded ocean-side cottage that he has recently inherited from his mother. We soon learn that Syracuse has a young, semi-wheelchair-bound daughter named Annie (Alison Barry), who is suffering from the incapacitating effects of kidney failure while awaiting a transplant, and who remains in the custody of his abrasive, heavy-drinking ex. Naturally, a romance between Syracuse and Ondine develops, but meets with some friction in the form of her enigmatic past. But I feel that I should disclose something about this plot up front: I don't think I'm spoiling overmuch to confess that any suggestions that Ondine is in fact some kind of fantastical creature are both quite faint and limited to the film's earliest parts, and it quickly becomes clear that we are not to entertain that possibility very seriously for very long. In Ondine, then, we get a fairy-story converted into a realist drama that consistently and self-consciously frames itself using the discourse of fantasy, but skirts direct participation in it.
In effect, while Ondine seems to have been marketed as resembling something like Pan's Labyrinth in its relationship with the fantasy genre, the film not only departs wildly from the fantastic ambiguity of del Toro's masterpiece, but in fact compares unfavorably with it in several ways that I will discuss as they come up. At the same time, while it is an old, old story, I can't actually recall any screen adaptations of the ondine/selkie legend save the inspired but ultimately lackluster family film The Secret of Roan Inish (1994), making Ondine all the more interesting a project for its uniqueness. Roan Inish is unsatisfying as an adaptation of the water-bride story not because, like Ondine, it adds a young girl to the plot—even taking it one step farther and featuring her as the lead—but because this earlier film glosses over the eerie, even disturbing love story so central to the legend, cleaning it up and sequestering it in the narrative past. A much nearer analogue for Ondine, then, would probably be Michael Petroni's film Till Human Voices Wake Us (2002), a critically-panned first effort that makes a similar attempt to grapple with questions of love, loss, and memory through the lens of an (at first) ambiguous fantasy, also centered around two characters "haunted by waters"—to borrow a line from A River Runs Through It. In Petroni's film, the amnesiac mystery woman may or may not be the protagonist's lost adolescent love come back from the dead, and both films seem mired in their own perfectly interesting premises, finally unable to resolve the question of how such a story of ambiguous fantasy should end.
I'm not, of course, siding with Annie here, declaring the film nothing but a "shite story" if the titular character doesn't turn out to be a mermaid or a selkie or a something. Ondine is simply a quiet indie film that means well, but means better than it delivers. Hyper-aware of its own pretension towards joining the ranks of that ever more slippery genre, "the modern fairytale," the film self-consciously invokes the fantastic from the beginning, as when Syracuse asks Annie if "anything strange or wonderful" has happened to her today. He then tells her a story based on his own encounter with the water-woman, recasting his real experience as a fiction but without changing anything. As this game of storytelling continues, Annie explains to her father that this woman sounds a lot like a selkie, although her account of the creature is far more romantic than the ones I'm used to, omitting the detail that the selkie's husband often dominates his supernatural bride by forcibly preventing her from ever returning to her home. After doing some research and after she finally meets Ondine, Annie decides that, yes, the selkie story applies most nearly out of the many possible explanations for the woman's presence among them, and Ondine encourages her, playfully adopting the terms of that narrative. Evidently, in naming herself "Ondine," the woman had clearly selected the similar and no less sinister ondine/undine story to describe her own situation, in which a human husband also removes his bride from her home forever, only to prove unfaithful to her. This mythic mélange starts off smart and allows for some welcome moments of humor: Ondine's Francophone self-designation leads Annie to wonder what a French selkie is doing in Ireland at all, especially since the selkie was originally a creature of Scottish folklore. And, for her part, Syracuse's ex-wife chooses to refer to Ondine as his "water-baby," presumably a contemptuous reference to the famous children's book by Charles Kingsley.
Although short on genuine fantasy, Ondine is obviously full of fairytales: Syracuse himself compares the confessional box—another site of warm humor in the film—to a version of the story of King Midas telling his secret to a meadow, and Annie accuses Ondine of cleaning up the house just like Snow White (although she concludes that Snow White "doesn't matter—she didn't swim"). Since any sense of the fantastic unravels well before the ending, however, the film's central conceit about the relationship between fantasy and reality loses much of its power to engage, and also its capacity to comment thoughtfully on that relationship. Accordingly, the film cannot help but recall and then suffer in comparison to Pan's Labyrinth as a film that uses the fantasies of a young girl to walk a line between fantasy and reality, and, for all of its self-consciousness, Ondine also makes for a far less sophisticated treatment of storytelling itself. On the surface, of course, Ondine is nothing like Pan's Labyrinth, and, although Jordan needn't, say, show Ondine as looking like a seal to Annie's eyes, it is telling that the closest we come to seeing flippers on her is a scene in which she puts an arm inside a pair of fishnets to give herself a webbed hand. This scene establishes a trend for the rest of the film, which will always favor the sexy over the fantastic when depicting the water-bride. My other problem with how the film engages with "fantasy" involves how it seems to equate the fantastic too strongly with "the happy ending," rather than, as Julio Cortázar puts it in a somewhat different context, "the presence of a different life, of another way of seeing," or with any means of "subversion," or with any of the other uses and meanings we might care to associate with the genre. Ondine is certainly admirable in its attempt to validate the role of fantasy in "the real quotidian world," as Annie tells the priest, namely, "the one we have to live in," but I expect those widely read in fantasy will have seen it done far better elsewhere, and seen it done without some of the missteps Jordan makes here.
As a result, the film is a diluted version of a story I find far more powerful in the original fairytales, particularly when Jordan grafts on a fragment of a mystery/thriller plot to supplement his at times thoughtful meditation on fantasy, in which any fantastic element seems to end up equivalent to a cheap MacGuffin. Furthermore, although I wouldn't describe the main plot of the film as that of a typical romantic comedy—it's not nearly as light as, say, Ron Howard's own mermaid story Splash (1984)—Ondine remains a familiar amor vincit omnia story in which the potential dark side of the relationship between water-bride and land-husband becomes externalized in inimical forces opposing them, rather than located in that relationship itself. Along these same lines, the most disappointing aspect of the film is probably that Ondine herself is such a cipher, and, as the long takes of her various states of undress pile up, it begins to seem as if Jordan is less interested in the ondine story in itself, and more in that special "ondine" sultriness achieved with the aid of ample helpings of dihydrogen monoxide. For his Ondine is troubled only in the most generic and vacuous way: she has absolutely no longing for her lost past, making her perfectly willing to cling to a stranger like Syracuse, with no sense that she has lost anything by doing so. By contrast, the traditional undine may gain a soul by marrying a mortal man, but in so doing loses all of the fantastic powers and pleasures of her native element. Even when the film's resolution fills in the details of Ondine's past, she remains a blank herself, chalking up that past as a loss, as it were, with, again, no implication that the whole panorama of her past should be anything but something she wants to forget. At its worst, the film is a regrettable misreading of the original story, an appropriation of a body of fairytales to add some folkloric, pseudo-fantastic color to a familiar enough Hollywood story; at its best, the film offers a well-intentioned statement on the vital place of fantasy in "the real world," but a statement enervated by its own simplistic and artificial narrative arc.
Most of the real magic in Ondine is restricted to the truly fantastic cinematography, the sort that makes even graying dilapidation look attractive; the scenery along the coast of Ireland that Jordan has chosen is beautiful and especially beautifully rendered here. Yet I had a few problems with the audio: the dialogue can often be difficult to make out—not only because of the Irish accents—and the soundtrack, at least for the first hour or so, relies on a few repetitive notes tapped out slowly on a piano. That this one-note soundtrack became grating probably reflects the larger problems I had with the film and its uneven pacing, as the entire first hour plays as an effort to strike a single distinct chord of wistful fantasy in the face of harsh reality, a kind of fantasy of fantasy. I appreciate this chord up to a certain point, but it can hardly sustain an engrossing narrative on its own; and, when Jordan attempts to shift gears in the last thirty or so minutes to a much more "action-packed" plot, the film all but falls apart. In short, the two parts don't work well enough on their own, and they definitely don't work together. Finally, while Farrell delivers a surprisingly convincing performance as a troubled small-time fisherman, Barry struggles to deliver some of her dialogue: I don't think it's primarily her own fault, but the script's, which requires Annie to be not only wisecracking beyond her years but implausibly world-weary. I'll buy a ten-year-old joking that her provincial hometown is "sartorially challenged," I suppose, but it's more difficult to believe that even a child who has to undergo periodic dialysis could come up with certain perfect expressions of exasperated despair: "I try to imagine a happy ending—it's hard. Some days it's hard."
In the end, I found Ondine not entirely meritless, but also not likely to leave a lasting impression, and certainly not quite what I would have hoped for. (I have a seahorse in this race, so to speak, as stories of fish-women in fact constitute a special interest of mine.) Perhaps the problems Jordan faced in this modern adaptation of the ondine/selkie story help explain why this fairytale has long been an inspiration for ballet and opera, but has fared less well as a more concrete piece of narrative storytelling. Regardless, the discordant turn towards the thriller in the final act was decidedly not the best way to adapt the tale for a contemporary audience, and Ondine leaves us still waiting for our genuinely first-class ondine/selkie film. Maybe they'll call it Undine?
T. S. Miller is currently a graduate student at the University of Notre Dame, where he studies Middle English literature. Of course, genre fiction has been the secret vice of many a medievalist before him. His non-fiction has also appeared on The Internet Review of Science Fiction, and another article is forthcoming in Science Fiction Studies.