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Fairytale of Castletownbere: Ondine

Alicja Bachleda and Colin Farrell in Ondine. Photos courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Filmmaker Neil Jordan talks about his new film, Ondine

I think everything is a fairy tale,” says Irish filmmaker Neil Jordan. “Movies are like fairy tales when they’re good. I love stories that question the nature of reality and go deeper than the real world, that present characters with inexplicable things and events in their lives. And this is one of those.”

He’s speaking of Ondine, his new film, which opens this week at the Amherst Theater. Set in a small village on the southwest coast of Ireland, it stars Colin Farrell as Syracuse, an independent fisherman trying to make a living in waters where the government favors industrial trawlers.

Director Neil Jordan

As the film opens he raises his net to find an unusual catch among the tuna and mackerel: a young woman, played by Polish actress Alicja Bachleda. She appears dead, but he revives her and takes her to the abandoned house of his dead mother for shelter. She is adamant about not wanting to be seen by anyone, and says she has lost her memory. For a name, she offers Ondine, after the water nymph of folk legends.

Syracuse’s young daughter Anna (Alison Barry) comes to her own conclusions about Ondine—that she is a selkie, a magical creature that is half human and half seal. Suffering from kidney disease and confined to a wheelchair, she is eager to find a piece of magic to hitch her hopes to. Her father, battling alcoholism and the scars of a bad marriage that won’t heal, could use some magic too.

Speaking during a press conference at the film’s premiere at the Toronto Film Festival last September, Jordan says he came up with the story while on a visit to his Irish home during Hollywood’s writers strike. “I had this image of a fisherman [catching] this girl in his net,” he explains. “It was a very captivating image and I designed a fairy tale around it. It was a challenge to construct a story that depends so much on fantasy, but that’s what I wanted it to be about, how people need a sense of fantasy in their lives to enable them to live.”

It’s a theme that has long interested Jordan, best known for The Crying Game and Interview with the Vampire. “I made a movie years ago called The Company of Wolves, which was a very brutal, weird version of ‘Little Red Riding Hood.’ This is my version of ‘The Little Mermaid,’ I suppose.”

But at heart it’s reality that grounds him. Ondine was filmed on a tiny budget in Castletownbere, where Jordan has a house and which he knows intimately. “I wanted [the film] to reflect the realities of Irish life. It’s set in a tough environment, a fishing town where they’re not allowed to fish anymore, a guy in this little tiny boat compared to the trawlers that surround him. I saw the film as a fairy tale that erupts into real people’s lives. It turns out to be real life but they insist on turning it back into a fairy tale, because the real story is not satisfying enough to them.”

Central to the film’s atmosphere, which grows more otherworldly as the story becomes less so, is the cinematography of the peerless Christopher Doyle, best known for his work with Wong Kar-wai and other Asian filmmakers. “He’s kind of remarkable,” Jordan says. “When I saw [Zhang Yimou’s] Hero, I thought, who on earth allowed this guy to shoot different scenes in entirely different colors? There were scenes where everything on the screen was orange, or one other color. He’s one of these brave guys who reinvents the language of cinema every time.

“In this case the main challenge was, how do you tell a story that has a fabulous element in a real environment, without effects or digital interference? And without building any sets, because I wanted it to be that straight and bleak. Chris went down to the town, lived there, absorbed the spirit of the place and found a cinematic language to show it. He also operated the camera, so he’s got a very immediate relationship to what he photographs.”

Ireland may be going through political difficulties, but cinematically it seems to be thriving. Last year TIFF had a record number of submissions from Éire. “It used to be myself and Jim Sheridan were the only ones making films there. But there’s an Irish Film Board that’s been working a long long time, that has put a lot of resources, a lot of energy and commitment into Irish filmmaking and nurturing a film culture there. I think it must be a reflection of that this year.“

The premiere screening itself was blessed with two surprise guests—Bono and the Edge from U2. Although the Irish musicians had nothing to do with the film, Jordan says, “They were in town doing concerts. They live next door to me in Ireland. It’s a small country. It’s not like everybody knows everybody but it’s not that hard to keep in contact with people.”

Watch the trailer for Ondine

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