There’s more than one happy ending to be found in "Ondine," Neil Jordan’s slight but charming new film about the borderland between myth and reality, which opens next month and was featured last week as part of the Tribeca Film Festival.
Apart from the magic of the tale, there’s also the satisfying sight of a great Irish actor finally reconnecting with his own talent and rescuing his life and career from the grip of the tabloids, where it once looked destined to implode.
In "Ondine," Colin Farrell gives a performance that reminds us why so many of us were captivated by him in the first place. As Syracuse, Jordan’s unlikely hero, Farrell gives a sensitive, nuanced and immensely likeable performance (featuring a flawless Cork accent) that effortlessly carries the whole film.
As with almost all of Jordan’s projects, there’s more than a bit of life and art intersecting in this film. First of all Farrell plays a divorced Cork fisherman, the recovering alcoholic Syracuse (or Circus, as he’s mockingly nicknamed by the locals).
Syracuse is a good man who’s been brought low by his own weaknesses, but there’s still some fight in him. The temptation to see the overlap between the character and the actor playing him is at times overwhelming.
Syracuse, with his lovely Cork reticence and lack of ostentation, is a million miles from the Hollywood showboats that were Farrell’s stock in trade by the middle of the last decade. "Ondine" is about as far from "Alexander" and "Miami Vice" as it’s possible to get and thank God really, it’s a much better film.
Since his quiet and criminally underrated turn as the conscience stricken young man in Woody Allen’s "Cassandra’s Dream" in 2007, Farrell’s been reconnecting with the undiminished talent that originally made his name.
He certainly has the looks for macho shoot ‘em ups like "S.W.A.T." and "Pride and Glory," but the fact is that Farrell’s range as an actor is better suited to more complex and challenging work like "Ondine," "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus" and "A Home at the End of the World."
Farrell’s also a terrific comic actor, a fact that is underappreciated, as his lovely, sarcastic turn in "In Bruges" demonstrated. That’s why it’s so good to see him emerge from the wild years of partying and excess.
Meeting Farrell in 2008 was a bit like meeting Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones in 1968. He was behaving like a world famous rock star, not an actor.
He had a beautiful woman on his arm and he smoked all the way through his interview in the non-smoking Parker Meridian hotel, tipping his ash into a little plastic cup and choking his personal assistant. At the time you had to wonder if he’d ever allow the side of himself -- the thoughtful, sensitive side, the Irish side really -- to emerge again.
What a difference two years can make. The Colin Farrell who bounded into the Parker Meridian in 2010 looked happy, healthy and contented with his lot. He was a new man.
What may surprise you to discover is that like some other world famous actors, in person Farrell is actually quite shy and unassuming. He puts a brave face on things, but he doesn’t enjoy the promotional side of filmmaking and the often admittedly superficial questions that many journalists ask him.
At one point, when almost no one’s looking, he puts his face in his hands and grimaces at the absurdity of it all. He doesn’t want to offend anyone, but he’s not going to answer a question he thinks is undignified. That’s the Colin Farrell we all know and love.
As Farrell himself readily admits, working on "Ondine" was a life changing experience. As well as reacquainting him with his own talent and his love of filmmaking, it also introduced him to his real life partner, the gorgeous Polish actress Alicja Bachleda, who plays the title role in the film and is now also the mother of his six-month-old son Henry.
“Syracuse was the first character I ever had a hard time letting go of,” Farrell tells the Irish Voice, and you can hear the sincerity in his tone.
“And this film was one of the hardest accents I’ve had to do especially because I felt a national obligation not to f--- it up. To make good again, you know? The local papers said I did all right.”
It’s ironic that he plays a fisherman in "Ondine" because, he says, he can barely swim.
“My mother and sisters are good swimmers, my sister Claudine was a like a tadpole since she was born, but I could never swim,” he admits.
Farrell is also dismissive of anyone who thinks that "Ondine" is just a "Splash" remake. First of all, Ondine is a selkie (a half woman, half seal) and that, he says, is an altogether different Irish take on the classic myth.
“Ondine is a seal woman, a beautiful creature with lovely hair that you can’t help falling in love with,” says Jordan.
“They appear, they make you fall in love with them, they mess you up and then go back to the sea. Just like a real woman,” says Farrell.
“My character Syracuse comes from a small town and he’s given love a chance once and it resulted in a dissolved marriage. He equated love to loss, in all aspects of his life. His mother has just recently passed, his seven-year-old daughter is very ill, and yet he’s not filled with self-pity.”
Farrell clearly loves the magic realist elements of the film, too.
“Syracuse meets Ondine when he catches her in his nets. He doesn’t meet her in the pub or over a nice portion of fish and chips as so often happens romantically in Ireland on a Friday night. You know, ‘G’is your number love and I’ll text ya.’
“Ondine brings something back into his life that he’d stopped believing in. That reinsertion of love into his life is what she brings.”
Critics have been calling "Ondine" a fractured fairy tale, in homage to the classic cartoon The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. Jordan laughs at the comparison.
“My whole life has been a fractured fairytale. I’ve always loved fairytales,” he says.
“I like story and characters that don’t fully understand themselves. I’ve never made an entirely realistic film in my life. I was told too many myths and legends by my father as a kid -- he was a national schoolteacher and he used to love to terrify the life out of me. He told me a load of ghost stories that I’ve probably never recovered from.”
Farrell laughs at Jordan’s experience but doesn’t share it.
“My dad plagued me in other ways. He was a football coach on the football team I played for in Dublin and that accounts for the nightmares he left me,” says Farrell.
“I didn’t feel the need to research my character. All I needed was in the script from day one.”
Jordan adds that "Ondine" was a labor of love for him, because it freed him of talking about Ireland in a certain way.
“I’ve made a lot of harsh movies in Ireland. I’ve made a lot of movies about violence, and I thought could I make a film that is terribly simple and terribly forgiving where nobody dies in the end,” he says.
Asked what it was like to finally play a character who doesn’t shoot first and ask questions later, Farrell jokes, “It was so boring. I didn’t get to scalp anyone or remove their molars.
“Actually it was really lovely to play a character that wasn’t burdened by his past, who cared a lot about important things and not at all about the unimportant things that consume a lot of us.
“It was the first time in 12 years I played a character I wasn’t looking forward to leaving. I really miss him. I even miss his name.”
Ondine opens nationwide on June 18.
Happy Earth Day! Ireland sure looks gorgeous from outer space