Irish writer-director Neil Jordan will always be best remembered for The Crying Game and its penile plot twist, but there’s infinitely more to his filmography than surprise shemales. Off hand, I can’t think of a filmmaker with a comparably varied résumé. This guy will try anything.
Jordan has experimented with the shoestring crime thriller (Mona Lisa, The Good Thief), the head-trip chiller (In Dreams), biographical drama (Michael Collins), comedy (We’re No Angels), horror (The Company of Wolves), bloated Hollywood nonsense (Interview With the Vampire, The Brave One) and even a tender story of transgender pluck (Breakfast on Pluto). To this list we now add the postmodern fairy tale.
Jordan’s latest riffs on the Irish legend of the selkie, a mythological creature — half woman, half seal — who periodically sheds its coat and comes ashore to fall in love with a human and do miscellaneous magical things, such as granting a single wish, before returning to the deep.
Colin Farrell stars as a County Cork fisherman named Syracuse. Well into a dry spell, he’s taken aback by the weight of his catch when he hauls it in one day — and is further astonished to find tangled inside his net not shellfish but a beautiful woman.
Polish actress (and Farrell’s off-screen squeeze) Alicja Bachleda plays the creature from the sea. She speaks English with an elusive accent, fears being seen by anyone but Syracuse and identifies herself only as Ondine — which, she explains, means “the girl who came from the water” in her native tongue. Is she a selkie? The director grounds his story firmly in the real world, so the possibility seems tantalizing but remote. How else, though, to explain her presence in the middle of the Atlantic?
Jordan doesn’t overdo it with the pixie dust. If we come to believe Ondine may be something other than human, that’s because Syracuse grows ever more open to the idea. And he does so primarily because his daughter, Annie, believes the mysterious visitor to be the real seal deal. Newcomer Alison Barry gives a remarkable performance in the role of a funny, bright 10-year-old whose kidney may be failing but whose spirit is indomitable.
The picture’s a pleasure on any number of levels. Cinematographer Christopher Doyle has a field day with the rocky shores and emerald landscapes of Castletownbere, the fishing village where Jordan shot the film — and himself resides. Farrell, for his part, is at the top of his game as a boozer who’s hit bottom, been humbled and rebooted his life.
The script includes a witty running bit about the friendship between Syracuse and the local priest (Jordan regular Stephen Rea), who wishes he’d come to mass and not just use the confession booth as a substitute for AA meetings. No one else in town is sober enough to organize one.
And, of course, the film holds our attention with the mystery of Ondine. Magical things do seem to happen wherever she goes. If she’s not supernatural, the last act has some explaining to do.
Jordan just about pulls it off. Movie critic law forbids my giving away too much, so let’s just say the outside world intrudes on the story in brutal fashion, putting all that’s come before into a new, less rainbow-tinted light. Is everything explained, each otherworldly manifestation accounted for? Not quite. Does one feel cheated? Not remotely. The film is simply too well intentioned, too well told and far too enchanting to be ruined by one or two loose ends. Jordan has succeeded in making a movie for grownups that pivots on a convincing mix of crime story and fairy tale. If that doesn’t qualify as movie magic, I don’t know what does.