The Movie Date: Ondine

The Movie Date is a weekly feature where we discuss movies that may appeal to the YA audience. This week’s movie date with Andrew is Ondine, a 2009 film directed by Neil Jordan.

An Irish fisherman is astounded to discover a live woman in his nets; he is convinced by his disabled young daughter that the lady is a selkie—a fabled seal-human shapeshifter.

Though I’m not deep into fantasy literature or mythology, I was surprised to learn about selkies just last year: speaking at Comic-Con in 2011, author Anton Strout (the Simon Canderous series) amusingly described a Penguin YA meeting in which the senior editors decided that selkies would be the new trend. Though I’m sure they’ve featured in a few books since then, I’m sorry they haven’t caught on; they strike me as much more interesting than mermaids, for instance.

Hoisting up his catch one foggy Irish morning, grizzled Syracuse (Colin Farrell) is shocked to find a female body in amongst the fish—and relieved to find the woman alive and breathing. He gives her shelter at his isolated cottage, then heads into town to take his  wheelchair-bound daughter (shared with an ex-wife) to dialysis. (Lest you think the film be too fanciful, these gritty authentic details help keep it grounded in the real world.) Upon hearing of her dad’s latest “catch,” young Annie is certain the woman is a selkie. After some research, she fills her father in on the details of selkie lore.

According to Annie, the selkie starts life as a seal, then sheds its skin to assume human form and walk on the land. The selkie must find her seal-skin and bury it secretly, after which she is free to live on the land for seven years. She can meet a landsman and take him as a husband. If they make love she will cry seven tears (which may have magic powers?). Selkies can even grant wishes. The one catch: each selkie has a selk-husband, who may come onto land to look for her and reclaim her.

Of course many of Annie’s predictions come true, much to Syracuse’s astonishment. Initially shy, the woman (Ondine) slowly comes to trust the town and its people—and Syracuse and Annie. What’s more, he discovers that the charming woman has a very handy power—by singing her ethereal songs into the sea, she can charm lobsters into Syracuse’s traps and salmon into his nets. It’s handy having a selk around! And though neither is eager to rush into a relationship, they each find themselves attracted to one another.

Though Ondine seems magical enough, the film leaves open the possibility that she could be an everyday mortal, too, with the bits of magic that occur simply being instances of luck. Surprisingly, rather than leaving the truth ambiguous, the film actually commits to either fantasy or reality (I won’t say which) and explains Ondine’s shadowy origins. I will say the ending is completely satisfying and very emotional.

Though the film seems like an adaptation of a classic or modern piece of literature, the story and screenplay were surprisingly both written by the film’s director Neil Jordan (The Crying Game, Interview with a Vampire). Jordan’s Irish background gives this film an authentic Hibernian flavor, and the story is an engaging interweaving of mythology and the modern world. And pretty darn romantic to boot.

Ondine is rated PG-13 and is available now on DVD or Netflix streaming.


10 thoughts on “The Movie Date: Ondine

  1. I really liked this film too, Lucy! I liked that the film left things open to interpretation, and it was a somewhat simple, dreamy sort of story. I was pleasantly surprised by this film and I’m glad you liked it, too!

  2. Tammy Sparks says:

    Andrew must have written this review. Only a man would call Colin Farrell “grizzled.” 🙂

    1. wordsforthepictures says:

      OK, well maybe not grizzled in terms of having gray hair, but he does look pretty unkempt and unshaven; you can almost smell the seagoing stench…

  3. BermudaOnion says:

    I’d never heard of this movie but the trailer looks good to me. Thanks for educating me on selkies!

    1. wordsforthepictures says:

      Hope you like it! I have no idea if the selkie “lore” presented in the film is accurate to the legend or fanciful, but it worked for me! (BTW they do own up to the fact that selkies are a Scottish legend rather than Irish; a Scottish character was more familiar with them than the other folks.)

  4. squee1313 says:

    Been seeing this one on my Kindle Prime account. Haven’t watched it yet, but think I might. Somehow didn’t pick up on the fact that it was about Selkies before now. Have you ever read Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series? I first heard about Selkies in her books. One of the main character’s father was rumored to be a Selkie because he was handsome enough to lure away the daughter of the clan leader. It’s a great legend.

  5. fishgirl182 says:

    i remember this movie. i didn’t know that neil jordan directed it. for some reason selkies always seemed a bit scary to me – scarier than mermaids at least. not sure why since i don’t know much about selkies. thanks for the review. i might check this one out.

  6. VeganYANerds says:

    I’m sure I’ve heard the name Ondine but I think I thought it was a book, but after reading this I know I want to watch the film. Selkies might start being more of a YA thing, an Aussie author, Margo Lanagan has a new book called Sea hearts (The Brides of Rollrock in the USA) so you might be right!

    1. wordsforthepictures says:

      I didn’t know this until just now, but Ondine (or Undine) is the name of a legendary water sprite: . To free herself, she wishes to do harm to her husband; I’ll let you decide whether this has relevance to the film after you see it!

  7. Sonia says:

    Thanks for this writeup and all the people who provided comments. I watch a lot of movies and somehow this one escaped me. I will definitely be renting it soon! With respect to the gritty authentic details such as the daughter in a wheelchair, I beleive they do help keep a movie such as this one, grounded.

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