A down-on-his-luck fisherman plucks a mysterious young woman from the sea in his net in this beguiling Irish story from writer-director Neil Jordan.
Jordan pulls off quite a sleight of hand here, carefully constructing all the elements of a fairy tale that only in hindsight is revealed at every turn to be something else entirely. And still, in the face of that gritty reality, the enchantment holds sway.
A scruffy, long-haired Colin Farrell is simply marvelous with his soulful performance as Syracuse the fisherman, a recovering alcoholic whose drunken antics of the past have stuck him forever with the nickname "Circus." By any measure his life is something of a nightmare: His ex-wife, Maura (Dervla Kirwan), is an alcoholic and a harpie but retained custody of their daughter, Annie, a fey young thing who is deathly ill with kidney failure.
When Syracuse lands the woman in his fishing net, he at first believes she is dead. Once she revives, she tells him her name is Ondine and she wishes to be seen by no one but him.
He lets her stay at his lonely cottage, where she puts on his dead mother's coat and boots and seems to thrive swimming in the frigid water. When Syracuse tells his daughter a story about a woman pulled from the sea, she has a ready explanation: Ondine is a selkie, a seal woman who could fall in love with a landsman although she has left behind somewhere a selkie husband. Even Syracuse starts to half-believe the story when Ondine seems to bring him luck at fishing.
Annie, a marvelous acting debut from 11-year-old Alison Barry, already knows the harsh realities of life: dialysis, divorce, alcoholism, bullying from her schoolmates. Although her lines at times seem preternaturally precocious (would she actually call her town "sartorially challenged?"), her belief in fairy tales and hope for a happy ending -- against all odds -- anchor the tale.
Alicja Bachleda, a Polish actress and singer, brings the perfect otherworldly quality to Ondine. The movie is lovely, filmed entirely in Castletownbere, a fishing town where Jordan owns a home, by cinematographer Christopher Doyle ("Rabbitproof Fence"). The hauntingly lovely score is by Sigur Ros keyboardist Kjartan Sveinsso. Bachleda's singing (the song "All Alright" by Sigur Ros), especially as beautifully amplified and seemingly heard from underwater as Syracuse's fishing boat passes overhead, does sound like a tune a selkie would sing.
There's true magic in the connections: Syracuse falls for Ondine, Ondine falls for both him and Annie. In a "poxie town" that doesn't even have an Alcoholics Anonymous chapter, Syracuse confesses to the local priest, a marvelous Stephen Rea, in a few priceless exchanges. The only complaint might be that the thick Irish brogues are sometimes difficult to understand.
The mythic language, the fairy-tale appropriate setting, perfect small details (the opportune appearance of a sea lion during a regatta for example), a pitch-perfect script full of humor and feeling, and a fine cast all add up to true enchantment. Don't we secretly all believe we might someday get our happy ending?
3 1/2 stars (out of 4)
STARRING: Colin Farrell, Alicja Bachleda, Alison Barry, Stephen Rea
DIRECTOR: Neil Jordan
RUNNING TIME: 103 minutes
RATING: PG-13 for some violence, sensuality and brief strong language.
THE LOWDOWN: A fisherman falls in love with a mysterious woman after pulling her from the sea in his net.