Neil Jordan’s first original screenplay in a decade sees him return to Ireland for a gentle, unassuming fable about family, faith and love. Ondine’s lyrical title derives from German folklorist Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué’s 1811 novella Undine, where a water-nymph bewitches a Saxon knight. The story has formed the basis for dozens of films, including another beautifully photographed Irish-set fairy-tale, The Secret of Roan Inish, which John Sayles and cinematographer Haskell Wexler made in and around Rosbeg in Donegal in 1994. Although that film was a bit of an oddity for the passionately political Sayles, you can’t say the same about Jordan, who has always shown a fascination with fairy-tales and fantasies; alternate worlds where alternate things happen.

Syraceuse (Colin Farrell) is a fisherman who operates a boat out of a harbour on the Cork coast. Once married to the shrewish Maura (Dervla Kirwan), he has given up the drink and devoted himself to looking after their sweet young daughter Anna (Alison Barry), who is on kidney dialysis and uses a wheelchair to get around. One day, while trawling the green waters, Syraceuse finds a beautiful woman (Alicja Bachleda) half-drowned in his nets. When she is revived, she explains she has no memory of who she is, or what happened to her. Syraceuse puts her up in an old cottage and promises to keep her presence a secret. But his daughter discovers the woman, now called Ondine, and believes she is a selkie; a mythical mermaid who looks human and can walk on land but who belongs to the sea.

Ondine is a strange girl, and strange things happen when she is around. Syraceuse had been struggling to land a catch but when she sings a song from his deck, the fish jump into the nets. Later, her presence seems to have a curative effect on Anna, who has been waiting for a kidney transplant. Could Ondine really be a magical being, come to land to find love and bring good luck? Meanwhile, Syraceuse is struggling with his sobriety, regularly attending confessions with the local priest (Stephen Rea) in lieu of an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.

Farrell has emerged from his shallow Hollywood period as a decent actor. He struggles with the sing-song strangulations of the Cork accent (sounding at times like he is laughing and choking in the same breath) but beyond that, this is a mature, involving performance. He plays Syraceuse in a minor-key, resolutely understating the potentially unwieldy sweep of his character and searching out moments of intimacy and empathy. Opposite him, Bachleda is well cast as the tattered waif Ondine, almost silent for the most part but communicating an ethereal presence throughout.

The middle section of the film, a collection of deliberate distractions and odd character moments, is almost entirely horizontal. It’s as if Jordan is treading water, waiting for the right moment to bring his finely-spun elements together. But he delays too long, the story drags and his characters wilt. The twisted knots of the plot are not nearly as complicated, sinister or compelling as they might have been. Whatever elusive magic the story contained dribbles away. Indeed, audiences might entertain themselves during the late-stage longeurs in trying to guess how this fantastical story will resolve itself in the real world. There are few options and Jordan picks the obvious one.

The story might be bumpy and the dialogue uneven, but Jordan is immensely skilled in creating mood. Ondine is, simply, a beautiful film to look at. Australian cinematographer Christopher Doyle’s lush, hazy images are underlined by a haunting score from Kjartan Sveinsson, the keyboardist in Icelandic band Sigur Ros.

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