While the Irish writer-director will always be best remembered for “The Crying Game” and its penile plot twist, there’s infinitely more to Neil Jordan’s filmography than surprise shemales. Off hand, I can’t think of a filmmaker with a comparably varied resume. This guy will try anything.
He’s experimented with the shoestring crime thriller (“Mona Lisa,” “The Good Thief”), the head trip chiller (“In Dreams”), biographical drama (“Michael Collins”), comedy (“We’re No Angels”), horror (“The Company of Wolves”), bloated Hollywood nonsense (“Interview With the Vampire,” “The Brave One”) even a tender story of transgender pluck (“Breakfast on Pluto”). To this list we now add the postmodern fairy tale.
Jordan’s latest riffs on the Irish legend of the selkie, a mythological creature-half woman, half seal-who periodically sheds its coat and comes ashore to fall in love with a human, do miscellaneous magical things including granting a single wish before returning to the deep. Colin Farrell stars as a County Cork fisherman named Syracuse. Well into a dry spell he’s taken aback by the weight of his catch when hauling in his net one day and further astonished to find tangled inside it not shell fish but a beautiful woman.
Polish actress (and Farrell’s off screen squeeze) Alicja Bachleda plays the creature from the sea who speaks english but with an elusive accent, fears being seen by anyone but Syracuse and identifies herself only as Ondine which, she explains, means “the girl who came from the water” in her native tongue. Is she a selkie? The director grounds his story firmly in the real world so the possibility is tantalizing but remote. How else though to explain her presence in the middle of the Atlantic?
Jordan doesn’t overdo it with the pixie dust. If we come to believe that she might be something other than human, that’s because Syracuse grows ever more open to the idea. And he does so primarily because his daughter, Annie, believes the mysterious visitor to be the real seal deal. Newcomer Alison Barry gives a remarkable performance in the role of a funny, bright 10 year old whose kidney may be failing but whose spirit is indomitable.
The picture’s a pleasure on any number of levels. Cinematographer Christopher Doyle has a field day with the rocky shores and emerald landscapes of Castletownbere, the fishing village where the film was shot and which Jordan calls home. Farrell, for his part, is at the top of his game as a boozer who’s hit bottom, been humbled and rebooted his life.
The script includes a witty running bit about the friendship between Syracuse and the local priest (Jordan regular Stephen Rea) who wishes he’d come to mass and not just use the confession booth as a substitute for AA meetings no one else in town is sober enough to organize. And, of course, there is the mystery of Ondine. Magical things do seem to happen wherever she goes. If she’s not supernatural, the last act has some explaining to do.
And Jordan just about pulls it off. Movie critic law prohibits my giving away too much so let’s just say the outside world intrudes in brutal fashion putting all that’s come before into a new, less rainbow-tinted light. Is everything explained, each otherworldly deed accounted for? Not quite. Does one feel cheated? Not remotely. The film is simply too well intentioned, too well told and far too enchanting to be undercut by one or two loose ends. Jordan has succeeded in making a movie for grown ups which pivots on a convincing mix of crime story and fairy tale. If that doesn’t qualify as movie magic, I don’t know what does.