Trinity College, Dublin
by Paul McGuirk. This text may be archived and redistributed both in electronic form and in hard copy, provided that the author and journal are properly cited and no fee is charged for access.
Ondine is Neil Jordan’s sixteenth feature film — and his eight set in Ireland. One of a number of smaller, personal films by Jordan, it is a muted, elliptical fable that, while growing out of a number of dark folk-tales, ultimately seeks to assert an optimistic and even romantic view of the world. In creating the story, Jordan — the great adapter of Irish cinema — takes elements of the German folktale from which the film derives its title, the Scottish Selkie tradition, and Hans Christian Andersen’s «The Little Mermaid» and uses them to underpin a contemporary narrative that deals elliptically with issues of drug-culture, immigration, and the breakdown of traditional family structures in Ireland.
All the sources on which Jordan draws involve relations and relationships between sea-creatures of one form or another and humans. In the German version of Ondine, an immortal water-spirit, upon falling in love with a landsman and bearing him a child, loses her immortality and begins to age. The landsman, tiring of her, turns his attentions elsewhere. When Ondine discovers him with another woman, she takes her revenge. The Childe ballad, Silkie, tells the story of a seal-man who, having fathered a child on a lands-woman, later returns to take his son back with him to the sea kingdom of Sule Skerrie. This was the tradition that John Sayles tapped into in his 1994 adaptation of Rosalie Fry’s novel, The Secret of Roan Inish, which he shot with Haskell Wexler in Donegal. Sayles’ film tells the story of a young girl, Fiona, who, listening to islanders’ tales, comes to believe that her young brother had been washed out to sea in his infancy and raised by a Selkie. The Hans Christian Andersen’s story of «The Little Mermaid» involves a young mermaid who falls in love with a prince and later saves him from drowning when he is shipwrecked in a storm. In order to be with the prince, the mermaid drinks the Sea Witch’s potion that transforms her fish-tail into human legs. The price that she must pay for this transformation is that walking on land is a constant agony and, in addition, she loses her voice and becomes mute.
These stories deal in various ways with the idea of difference and the difficulties and anxieties that arise when strangers come into host-communities. In the folk song, Silkie, although the story is told from the point of view of the landswoman, the Selkie gets to set out his position in the lyric also. In The Little Mermaid, the story is told from the point of view of the mermaid. So, in both of these narratives, the Other, the stranger, gets to articulate desires that impact adversely on the lands-people while the purpose of the story is to give expression to the anxieties of the host communities.
In Jordan’s Ondine, the story is told from the point of view of Syracuse (Colin Farrell), a solitary alcoholic fisherman who, divorced from his wife, Maura (Dervla Kirwan), has joint-custody of their daughter, Annie (Alison Barry). The film opens with a rather dishevelled Syracuse fishing on his trawler — a fairly battered rust-bucket — on the sea off Casteltownbere (West Cork), and hauling a young woman (Alicja Bachleda-Curus) from the water in his nets. When Syracuse asks her if she is an asylum-seeker, she simply claims that she does not know how she came to be in the water.
Syracuse takes her to a ramshackle cabin in a secluded cove, where he keeps his boat moored, and tells her she can stay there as long as she likes. When he returns the following morning, he is surprised to find the woman still there. He takes her out fishing with him and she tells him that she has no memory of who she is, but that he can call her Ondine. Later, it emerges that Syracuse’s daughter Annie’s kidneys have failed and she, confined to a wheelchair, requires dialysis several times a week. At one of Annie’s dialysis sessions, Syracuse, to pass the time, tells her a story about a fisherman who catches a woman named Ondine in his nets. Unimpressed with Syracuse’s account, Annie does some research herself in the local library where she finds a number of books on Selkies and the story of Ondine. Her curiosity aroused, Annie makes her way out to her grandmother’s cabin where she finds and befriends Ondine.
Syracuse’s relationship with his alcoholic ex-wife Maura is fractious. Maura lives with Alex (Tony Curran) who has abandoned his own wife and children in Scotland and come to live in Ireland. Uncomfortable with her mother’s relationship with Alex, Annie becomes increasingly drawn to Ondine whom she believes to be a Selkie. And it is here that Jordan’s film strikes certain resonances with the Sayles version. In order to test the veracity of this belief, and also Ondine’s attachment to her, Annie plunges herself and her wheelchair into the harbour waters at Casteltownbere during the annual regatta. Diving from the harbour wall, Ondine saves Annie from drowning. However, Ondine has been spotted by Vladic (Emil Hostina) — her Selkie husband.
Driving home, after a hard day’s drinking, with Alex and Annie in the car, Maura is involved in a collision with Vladic, in which Alex is killed. As it happens, Alex has a kidney donor card and his tissue matches Annie’s. At Alex’s wake, Maura tells Syracuse to get rid of Ondine, and Syracuse, in a drunken stupor, takes her out to the seal island in Bantry Bay where he abandons her. Realising what he has done the following morning, he goes back out to the island and rescues her. When they return home, however, Vladic is awaiting them.
It emerges that Ondine is, in fact, a Romanian “drug-mule”, named Johanna. In an elaborate flashback, we learn that Vladic had entrusted a consignment of drugs to Johanna/Ondine and put her into the water when they were intercepted by the Coast Guard at sea off the south coast. Vladic wants the drugs returned. Annie claims they are hidden in a lobster pot at sea. In a confrontation on Syracuse’s boat, Johanna/Ondine throws Vladic, who cannot swim, overboard and he drowns. Johanna/Ondine is taken away by the Gardai and is about to be deported when Syracuse intervenes and marries her.
In Jordan’s reworking of the folk-tale sources, the stranger, the Other, the asylum-seeker is figured as an attractive young woman. At no point does she appear to represent any sort of threat to either Syracuse or his daughter, Annie. She is quiet, refined, East European. Her singing seems to improve Syracuse’s catches at sea. She undertakes teaching Annie how to swim. The world she enters, a modern fishing port whose serried ranks of industrial trawlers, effectively caught by Christopher Doyle’s cinematography in all their dour, mechanical impersonality, is in many ways far removed from the picturesque coastal villages of which the Irish Tourist Board was once so fond — those nostalgic images designed to evoke some semblance of an imagined rural/maritime idyll. Jordan’s fishing port is a cosmopolitan place. It is not the metropolis, but it pays little heed to “strangers”, to “foreigners”, to the Other. People come and go. No one pays any particular attention to Vladic, snooping around, asking questions about Ondine. No one passes any comment on Syracuse and Ondine strolling around the town, or shopping for designer dresses and underwear in the local boutique. Even the rather hapless local priest, whom Syracuse uses as a surrogate “AA buddy” — has little to say about Syracuse “sinning” with this strange woman. He is fatalistically reconciled to the fact Syracuse is just using him and that there is no point in expecting him to attend Mass or say a “few Hail Marys’ in return.
Like the unsatisfactory story that Syracuse initially tells Annie about the fisherman who finds a woman in his nets, Ondine, the film, is telling us a story that is trying to make sense of some of the social and cultural incongruities of the recent past. This is a society cut adrift from the traditional customs and values derived from the cultural nationalism and Roman Catholicism that informed most of its social and political discourse for the best part of the twentieth century. What Jordan elliptically evokes is a society that is both literally and metaphorically drunk; a society that has lost touch with reality. The hubristic and exotic delusions of the “Celtic Tiger” era have been replaced by the grim realities of the Hibernian hyena. Here is a society that is fractured and disorientated. The old stories have proven inefficacious and it is necessary to generate new narratives in order to make sense of the changing circumstances. However, isolated and incapacitated, Annie goes back to another past, to old stories of another culture and tests them against a contemporary reality with mixed results: she misreads reality through a fairytale.
While the Ondine of the German folktale loses her exotic allure once she has fallen for the knight and borne him a son, Jordan’s Ondine retains her air of foreign glamour right to the end. So, the anxieties to which the exotic gives rise are allayed: the fear that the exotic, once it has been accepted, will turn out to be not only ordinary but also, in a sense, profoundly debased, is assuaged. As a drug-mule, Ondine/Johanna had been used, abused, exploited and victimised by Vladic — the corrupt Other. However, there is never any suggestion that she is anything less than intrinsically good, and benign in her intentions. Even in moments of extreme duress, she remains eager to form a family with Syracuse and Annie, and we are led to believe that her “goodness” will ultimately copper-fasten Syracuse’s redemption. There is never any question of her going back to her own place, never any question of her laying claim to that which belongs to Syracuse.
In the ballad, Silkie, the seal-man returns to reclaim his son. The Silkie remains Other. He is a “grumly guest”; he is not “comely”. And he is of another place — “And when I’m far and far frae land, my home it is in Sule Skerie”. He is the feared “foreigner” who insinuates himself into the host community for his own advantage, and when he has achieved what he set out to achieve, takes away what he considers his by right without any consideration for those whom he leaves behind because his allegiances lie elsewhere. Jordan’s Ondine, on the other hand, is fully assimilated. She kills her seal-husband and thus cuts her ties with her other world, her home country. This is the perennial wish or fantasy of the host community: that, if, in what it sees as its generosity, it accepts “outsiders”, they should assimilate and unequivocally cut their ties with their own culture — and by extension, remove any threat that that culture might pose. In Jordan’s version, the fantasy is realised.
In the German Ondine, the Scottish Silkie, and The Little Mermaid, the sea-creatures remain other and are never assimilated. Because, Jordan’s story is told for the most part from Syracuse’s point of view, Ondine’s otherness is never fully explored. The conflict at the heart of the narrative is between Vladic and Ondine/Johanna. Despite this, Vladic remains a peripheral character, a cipher, a hollow signifier of otherness and criminality. Alex, the other foreigner who is killed as a result of Maura’s recklessness, is figured ambiguously also. Annie is mistrustful and fearful of him. He has abandoned his wife and children. Yet he carries a kidney-donor card, and effectively saves Annie’s life.
There is never any real conflict between Syracuse’s position and Ondine’s. He accepts her without question right from the start. When he does abandon her on the island, it is in a peculiarly motivated drunken rage that has been prompted by Maura’s own drunken exhortations. Syracuse’s positioning within his local society is ambivalent also. He refers to his mother as a “gypsy” and Maura tells him that they do not serve “knackers” like him in the local bar, The Skipper. So, it is not clear whether Syracuse is a settled traveller, or whether “knacker” is just a term of abuse that rolls easily off Maura’s drunken tongue. What is reasonably clear, however, is that Syracuse, like many of Jordan’s male protagonists, operates within extremely fuzzy and blurred boundaries. Syracuse is a rather well-intentioned if somewhat hapless character. Things have not worked out for him but he is not responsible for anything bad happening. The two deaths that facilitate narrative resolution — that of Alex and Vladic — are both significantly brought about by women associated with Syracuse, but not by Syracuse himself. This is a leitmotif that goes back as far as Mona Lisa (Neil Jordan, UK, 1986) and The Crying Game (Neil Jordan, Ireland, 1992).
Ondine is beautifully photographed by Christopher Doyle who captures the sullen, grey seascapes and landscapes around Casteltownbere in what must have been a very dull summer. The sombre tones of the images work very effectively in evoking Syracuse’s eviscerated emotional life. Colin Farrell’s performance also manages adroitly to convey tangibly something of the almost exhausted, emotional inertia from which Syracuse seems just a step away most of the time.
At a time when the Republic is in a state of political and economic turmoil, and the focus of many people’s attention is on the collapse of the centre of power in the metropolis, Jordan leaves behind the city — its corrupt politicians, bankers and developers — and gives us a redemptive love story. The project and its ambitions contrast with his contemporary and friend Jim Sheridan who has decided on a transposition of Susanne Bier’s 2004 family melodrama Brothers from Denmark to the US. The prolific Jordan is here once more working with his own screenplay, on a low budget, and on his own ground.