Saturday, June 4, 2011

Rambling Man: Ondine and the Strange Career of Neil Jordan

Director Neil Jordan
Irish filmmaker Neil Jordan is maddening. For every film as terrific as In Dreams,  The Company of Wolves, Mona Lisa, The End of the Affair, and The Good Thief, he'll make an equally dreary film such as High Spirits, We're No Angels, Breakfast On Pluto, The Brave One, his short film Not I (more on that in second) and, yes, The Crying Game (more on that in a sec too). I've never been able to get a handle on him as a director. Perhaps that's a good thing because it means there is an unpredictability about him. But it can also mean he has a complete lack of focus. Jordan also jumps from genre to genre. He'll follow a horror film (Interview With the Vampire – never seen it, so I won't comment) with his disappointing Irish historical drama, Michael Collins. Or he'll make a terrific, underrated caper picture like The Good Thief and then follow it with a barely released disaster like Breakfast On Pluto.

So when his most recent feature, Ondine (2009 – starring Colin Farrell), went straight to DVD in Canada, I gave it a pass. Then I watched The Borgias, the TV series he created/wrote (and directed the first two episodes) which just completed its first season. Like many of his films, there were some erratic moments, but the sublime finale, as patriarch Rodrigo Borgias (Jeremy Irons, who looked like he was having a good time with a role for the first time in years) played the various other characters like a violin, was almost perfect. It was so good it made me crave the second season (the show was renewed). I enjoyed The Borgias so much that I finally relented and picked up a copy of Ondine (I bought it, previously viewed, from my DVD shop since it was cheaper to do so than rent it). The premise is similar to John Sayles' overlong and stiff film The Secret of Roan Inish. Colin Farrell is a loner fisherman named Syracuse who everybody dismissively calls Circus because his life is an out-of-control circus. Among other things, he's a reformed drunk who lost custody of his beloved daughter (she's confined to a wheelchair due to kidney failure) when his wife left him for another man (he at least has quit the booze though his ex-wife has not). One evening as he hauls in his nets, he pulls up what he at first thinks is the corpse of a young woman (Alicja Bachleda). Soon after he brings her aboard, she starts to breathe.

Alicja Bachleda
She says her name is Ondine and doesn't correct anybody (especially Syracuse's daughter) when they suspect that she might be a selkie. A selkie is a mythological seal that can shed its skin and become human. It can maintain its human form as long as the skin is not found (the selkie buries it because it wants to remain human). Whoever rescues/captures the selkie will have a life suddenly filled with good luck (and luck sure comes Syracuse's way on multiple levels). However, in the case of the female selkie, its husband may come and try to reclaim her (a brooding man wanders around the background stalking Ondine). The rest of the film plays with the notion of is she or isn't she a selkie?

Ondine is a lovely, if slight film. Since shedding his own desire to become a Hollywood leading man in such bad movies as S.W.A.T. and The Recruit, Farrell has become an interesting actor. He still does the Hollywood stuff (2006's Miami Vice and the upcoming remake of Total Recall, now shooting in Toronto), but he happily alternates it with strong work such as In Bruges, Triage, and The Way Back. In Ondine, he is helped immeasurably by Jordan's sensitive writing and direction. Farrell crafts a character wracked with pain he barely understands who, finally, has luck enter his life (or as Ondine says at one point when he says “I'm never lucky, “Well, maybe it's your turn.”)

Billie Whitelaw in Beckett's Not I
One of Jordan's greatest strengths has been in helping actors craft performances. Alison Barry as Syracuse's young daughter is a real discovery. Her optimism and strength of belief in Ondine is completely credible. And even in some of his bad films, he manages to get good work from his performers. Which finally brings me to The Crying Game and the short film, Not I. Except for fine performances by Stephen Rea and Jaye Davidson in the overrated The Crying Game, I found the film a one-trick pony, and the one-trick was all the film was ultimately about. With his version of Samuel Beckett's disturbing short film, Not I, he cocks up the visuals entirely. In the first version, shot in black and white in 1973 (a director is not named, but I think it was Anthony Page who did the stage version and Beckett who shot the film), all we see is a woman's lips (Billie Whitelaw – a favourite of Beckett's) as she rants and raves in a stream of consciousness about what she did or didn't do. That's it. Jordan cast Julianne Moore in his version. A terrific actress, but his decision to start with a long shot of his star as she takes a chair is the first mistake. Shooting in colour is the second, because it eliminates the starkness of the visuals. We cut to her mouth as she begins her rant. But he also messes up by not doing it in one frightening close-up/take. Instead he uses multiple angles. It is a complete failure because Beckett’s texts and directions are very specific and you mess with them at your peril. And Moore's American accent doesn't help either.

Perhaps this short film can simultaneously define his strengths and his weaknesses as a filmmaker. First, he is drawn to challenging material such as Not I, but he also seems to forget sometimes what made the material work. Not I only works as a mouth and a single light. By trying to make it his own, he loses the 'plot'. Yet when he gets it right, with material he's written such as Company of Wolves, The Good Thief, and Ondine, Neil Jordan combines originality with a strong humanist touch creating wonderful works that linger in the mind long after they have finished.

David Churchill is a film critic and author of the novel The Empire of DeathYou can read an excerpt here. Or go to for more information. On Sunday, June 12th, from 3:00 to 4:30 pm, David will be conducting a reading/signing of The Empire of Death in Unionville, Ontario at the TooGood CafĂ© – 142 Main Street, Unionville.

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