I delight in the eerie opening scene of the Irish film Ondine. A commercial fisherman (Colin Farrell) raises his trawl and is surprised to find it holds the limp body of a beautiful young woman. He is even more surprised when she stirs to life.
That is Ondine (Alicja Bachleda), the mysterious woman at the center of this moving, assured romance written and directed by Neil Jordan. Like John Sayles' The Secret of Roan Inish, Ondine mines the lore of the selkie, the mermaid-like creature of Celtic folkways that is part human, part seal. (Ondine also bears a passing resemblance to Ron Howard's Splash.) Jordan's film unfolds like a fairy tale, sort of, but he is wonderfully careful with the ambiguous tone. There are strange, disorienting, dreamlike elements, but this is very much a story of the times we live in.
Members of the seafaring professions are by reputation superstitious, and Farrell's character, Syracuse, seems perfectly willing to believe that something supernatural has happened. That's especially true after some very successful fishing expeditions. Ondine sings in an unearthly voice, and Syracuse's nets and lobster pots fill to almost comic bursting. (He's also beguiled by Ondine's comeliness - there's a funny moment when she is steering the boat with her lovely bare leg, and he gulps at the sight.)
Encouraging Syracuse in his magical thinking is his young daughter Annie (Alison Barry), a bright kid who, suspecting something remarkable is afoot, checks every book about selkies out of the library. She knowingly, affectionately rattles off bits of selkie lore to Ondine, who is circumspect as to whether she is in fact a mythological creature - as you might expect a mythological creature to be.
As Annie, Barry is perfectly cast. She is an appealing young actress with wide, mysterious eyes. A sick child, Annie mostly gets around in a motorized wheelchair, and in lyrical sequences she is seen simply driving her chair amid the stunning Irish scenery.
This is a good performance by Farrell. His character, a recovering alcoholic, is a sad man who is just barely keeping his life together, and now he is having experiences that are hard to explain. In portraying this gruff fisherman Farrell finds just the right mix of skepticism and belief, or at least the desire to believe. Farrell also is droll in amusing confessional scenes with his exasperated priest (Stephen Rea).
My one complaint has to do with the ending, which of course I won't reveal. Jordan creates a really wonderful and beautiful - if at moments gritty - world, one in which magic seems to be happening. But the quick conclusion seems to be from another movie and explains more than I care to have explained. It's deflating.