We can all use a dose of escapism in these dark economic times, and Irish writer/director Neil Jordan serves up a deliciously romantic film “Ondine.” The Martha’s Vineyard Film Society’s winter series starts with the screening of this modern-day fairy tale on Friday, Oct. 1, at the Katharine Cornell Theatre.
The darkly handsome Irish actor Colin Farrell, seen recently in “Crazy Heart,” plays Syracuse, a down-on-his-luck fisherman who hauls up a beautiful young woman in his nets. Played by Mr. Farrell’s real-life girlfriend Alicja Bachleda, she calls herself Ondine.
That name itself evokes European myths of water nymphs with magical powers. But this Ondine instead seems to be a selkie, the mythical Irish seal who can shed her skin to become human. Film buffs may remember John Sayles’ “The Secret of Roan Inish,” a movie that also told the story of a selkie.
Anyone who has looked into the liquid eyes of a Vineyard seal can understand why an addled fisherman might mistake the creature for a woman. This particular selkie refuses to let anyone except Syracuse — known locally as Circus because of his one-time alcoholic antics — see her, so Syracuse hides Ondine away in the rundown cottage by the sea that belonged to his late mother.
When Ondine goes fishing with Syracuse and sings in a mysterious language, he starts reeling in heaps of lobsters and fish. Smitten by her elusive presence, he uses some of his new fishing booty to buy her frocks.
Then, because this is a modern fairy tale, complications loom. Syracuse has a fishwife of an ex who has not sobered up like him, and a wheelchair-bound daughter, Annie, who is suffering from kidney failure.
Annie is a perky and resourceful little 10-year-old, who mostly ignores the drunken antics of her mother, and the boyfriend who lives with the family. Newly equipped with an electric wheelchair, she does research on selkies, and tracks down the fairy creature her father has put into a story to entertain her while she undergoes dialysis.
The cinematography of Australian Christopher Doyle, who put in three years traveling the world on a Norwegian ship, captures the haunting beauty of the Irish coast near Cork.
Director Jordan, who has built his reputation around movies like “Mona Lisa” and “The Crying Game,” shows off his knack for interweaving gritty reality with an otherworldly magic and mystery.
“Ondine” turns darker and darker as the story unfolds. An ominous stranger who might be Ondine’s selkie-man husband seems to be tracking her down. Tragedy befalls Annie’s family, and the prospect of losing Ondine spurs an alcoholic relapse for Syracuse.
“Ondine” takes its time to unfold, and the viewer must be willing to suspend cynicism and disbelief to enjoy the quintessentially Irish magic in this fable about belief and hope.
“Ondine,” Friday, Oct. 1, 7:30 pm, Katharine Cornell Theatre, Vineyard Haven. $8; $5 M.V. Film Society members. Doors open at 7 pm. For more information, visit mvfilmsociety.com.
Brooks Robards, a frequent contributor to The Times, divides her time between Oak Bluffs and Northampton.