Ondine: Reworking a Foreign Fable, An Interview with Neil Jordan
by Paul McGuirk
Ondine is Neil Jordan’s eighteenth film since his 1981 directorial debut Angel, a controversial political thriller set against the Northern Ireland “Troubles.” Eight of those have been set in Ireland, eight elsewhere. And while many of Jordan’s films are rooted in contemporary realities, he has ventured—in both his literary fiction and filmmaking—into the realm of fantasy when what he has referred to as his “impatience with reality” gets the better of him.
In the course of his long and prolific career, Jordan has adroitly questioned the prevailing pieties of the Republic of Ireland’s particular brand of cultural nationalism in films such as The Miracle (1990), The Crying Game (1992), The Butcher Boy (1997), and Breakfast on Pluto (2006). Yet, he does not wish to be seen as a “political” filmmaker. Michael Collins (1996) is the only one of his films that sets out to make a direct intervention in the political fortunes of the island. Jordan prefers to approach contentious contemporary issues elliptically. In Ondine, Jordan, working with his own screenplay and on a low budget, sidles up to some of the issues that currently bedevil the island and produces a rather strange, uncanny fable.
At a time when the republic is in a state of political and economic turmoil, and the focus of many people’s attention is on the collapse of the center of power in Dublin, Jordan leaves behind the city—its corrupt politicians, bankers, and developers—and gives us a redemptive love story. Like the unsatisfactory story that Syracuse (Colin Farrell) initially tells his daughter, Annie (Alison Barry), about the fisherman who finds a woman in his nets, Ondine, the film, is telling us a story that is trying to make sense of some of the social and cultural incongruities of the recent past.
The Ireland of Jordan’s film, the Ireland of the new millennium, has given rise to a society cut adrift from cultural nationalism and Roman Catholicism that informed most of its communal and political discourse for the best part of the twentieth century. What Jordan elliptically evokes is a society that is both literally and metaphorically drunk, a society that has lost touch with reality. The hubristic delusions of the so-called “Celtic Tiger” era have been replaced by the grim realities of the Hibernian Hyena: a postlapsarian landscape in which the high-flying politicians, bankers, and developers of the dysfunctional boom scavenge among the ruins of their vanity projects for government bailouts. Here is a society that is fractured and disorientated. The old stories have proven inefficacious and it is necessary to generate new narratives in order to make sense of the changing circumstances. Isolated and incapacitated, Syracuse’s young daughter, Annie, goes back to another past, to old stories of another culture and tests them against a contemporary reality with mixed results. Looking at reality through the prism of a fairy tale, she misreads the facts.
For some, this tension between fantasy and reality that Jordan deploys here is one of the problems with the film. As Philip Kemp points out in his Sight & Sound review [20:4, 2010], whereas Jordan’s other forays into fantasy and the Gothic “sustain and even intensify their supernatural conventions throughout,” in Ondine, “as the mythic elements prove deceptive and dissolve, they come to feel retrospectively self-conscious, applied from outside as a plot device rather than inherent in the story.” As Kemp notes, fantasy is not alien territory where Jordan is concerned. His second film, The Company of Wolves (1984), explored various points of interpenetration between Angela Carter’s feminist reworking of Little Red Riding Hood and the slumbering imagination of a young pubescent girl. And Jordan’s most commercially successful film to date,Interview with the Vampire (1994), managed to combine an intelligent and witty reading of Anne Rice’s novel with a visually inventive realization of the text. In addition, both his novella The Dream of a Beast (1983) and his more recent novel, Shade (2004), pitch themselves somewhere on the cusp between fantasy and contemporary Gothic. And this coming autumn, Jordan is set to direct his adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book. So, it could be said he already has some form over this kind of terrain.
But in Ondine, Jordan takes elements of the German folk tale, and the Scottish Selkie tradition, and uses them elliptically to underpin a contemporary reality that involves issues of asylum seekers, and the breakdown of traditional family structures in Ireland. The folk tales that Jordan draws on involve relations and relationships between sea creatures of one form or another and humans. They deal in various ways with the difficulties and anxieties that arise when strangers come into host communities. In the Scottish folk song, “Silkie,” although the story is told from the point of view of the landswoman, the Selkie gets to articulate desires that impact adversely on the landspeople while the purpose of the story is to give expression to the anxieties of the host communities.
In Jordan’s version, the story is told from the point of view of Syracuse (Colin Farrell), a solitary, alcoholic fisherman who, divorced from his wife, Maura (Dervla Kirwan), has part-custody of their daughter, Annie (Alison Barry). The film opens with a rather dishevelled Syracuse fishing in his trawler—a battered old rust bucket—in the sea off Casteltownbere on the southwest coast of Ireland, and hauling a young woman (Alicja Bachleda) from the water in his nets. When Syracuse asks her if she is an “asylum-seeker,” she simply claims that she does not know how she came to be in the water.
The stranger, in Jordan’s reading of the folk tales, is an attractive young woman. At no point does she appear to represent any sort of threat to either Syracuse or his daughter, Annie. She is quiet, refined, European; unlike the West Africans that the politically-bankrupt, center-right Irish government is particularly eager to deport. Her singing seems to improve Syracuse’s catches at sea. She tries teaching Annie how to swim. The world she enters, a modern fishing port whose serried ranks of industrial trawlers, effectively caught by Christopher Doyle’s cinematography in all their dour, mechanical impersonality, is in many ways far removed from the picturesque coastal villages of which the Irish Tourist Board was once so fond. Jordan’s fishing port is a cosmopolitan place: it pays little heed to “strangers,” to “foreigners.”
In 1994, John Sayles came to Ireland and made The Secret of Roan Inish, an adaptation of the Scottish novel The Secret of Ron Mor Skerry by Rosalie K. Fry, that draws on the Irish and Orcadian folklore of the selkies—seals that can shed their skins to become human. Sayles sets his film in Donegal on the west coast of Ireland (terrain very similar to the Bere Peninsula where Jordan filmed), and tells the story of Fiona, a young girl who is sent to live with her grandparents near the island of Roan Inish where, tradition has it, the selkies reside. There, Fiona learns of the family legend that her younger brother was swept away in his infancy and raised by a selkie. While beautifully shot by Haskell Wexler, Sayles’s version retains the dark undertow of the Scottish tradition. When I mentioned to Jordan that he had chosen to rework this fairly grim material in a relatively optimistic and upbeat fashion, his reply was that was because his story turns out to be real, “If it had been a fairy tale it would have had to turn out badly.” And when I asked him, if, in setting his film as far away as he possibly could from the capital, he was trying to avoid dealing with contemporary Ireland—that is, Ireland in crisis, Ireland after the fall—he replied that the film was very much about contemporary Ireland.
In conclusion, it is probably worth noting that the only filmmaker living in Ireland who has so far directly addressed the delusional hubris of the so-called “Celtic Tiger” era—and that presciently back in 2006—is John Boorman in The Tiger’s Tail. Whether, at some point in the future Ondine will strike the kind of resonances that both The Miracle and The Butcher Boy did in retrospect remains to be seen. But already, more people in Ireland have gone to see Ondine than went to see The Tiger’s Tale.
Cineaste: Which came first—the story of Syracuse or the Ondine folktale?
Neil Jordan: I have a house down in Castletownbere and I’ve been out on the sea a lot and I just had this image of a fisherman finding a woman in his nets and taking her out of the water. And I didn’t know whether she would be alive, or whether she would be dead. I began to write it out that she comes back to life. That’s the way it started.
Cineaste: When did you start looking at the story of Ondine and the Selkie stories?
Jordan: I was wondering what sort of film it should be. So, I read Lady Gregory’s Folk Tales of Ireland. And I read Oscar Wilde’s fairy tales, which I’d always loved. Wilde had written a very strange story about an Arabic fisherman and a mermaid. So I just thought I’ll tell this little story about a woman fished out of the sea and we don’t know who she is or what she is. The little girl, Annie, adopts my position as the archivist, she imposes an interpretation.
Cineaste: The first time I came across the Selkie was in the old Scottish ballad, “Silkie,” in which a seal-man fathers a child on a landswoman and returns years later to retrieve his son and bring him back to his sea-home in Sule Skerrie. However, the seal-man or Selkie foresees that the woman will marry a gunner and “the very first shot that ere he’ll shoot will kill both my young son and me.”
Jordan: They always have a tragic conclusion, don’t they?
Cineaste: The way in which you rework the story of Ondine, however, is fairly optimistic and upbeat.
Jordan: It was an interesting little conundrum. What I was worried about is that the daughter interprets fishing this strange woman out of the sea as a fairy tale and manages to convince her father in some strange way that this is so—because he needs a bit of magic in his life. So, paradoxically, I’m telling a story that at first seems to be a fairy tale but that in the end turns out not to be. The irony is that if it had turned out to be a fairy tale, it would have had to end tragically. It would have had to end with somebody drowning or Ondine going back to the sea. The fact that it is a misunderstanding means that it can end happily.
Cineaste: I have seen the film twice now and one of the things that puzzled me, on both occasions, was Syracuse’s decision to take Ondine back out to sea and abandon her on the seal island. How did you see that? Was that meant to be just a piece of drunken madness?
Jordan: On the one hand, Syracuse is drunk. On the other, he has actually come to believe that she’s a selkie. If he can leave her there, he must believe that she is something other, that she is not of this world—a creature that’s not human.
Cineaste: Then he hears the song that she has been singing on TV the following morning.
Jordan: Yes, the song brings him back to reality. Also by this time, he has gotten over a really terrible night on the tiles. So, reality is returning. Also, you must remember, this is a tiny little movie, and it’s one in which I wanted to tell a fairy story, a story of enchantment, without any special effects at all: a fairy tale that takes place in the real world. Something like Amélie [Jean-Pierre Jeunet, France, 2001] used a considerable amount of digital effects. It had to change Parisian landscapes and colors. And I thought, “OK, is it possible to weave that kind of spell with just a camera, just the landscape, just the sea, just the light, and just the performances?” That’s why I chose Chris Doyle. He’s very unique. He’s so totally engaged with what the camera can do—using different stocks and speeds. So, it was a challenge—a cinematic challenge for me at any rate.
Cineaste: The cinematography catches that grey, overcast, oppressive atmosphere that you sometimes get on the southwest coast. And it also catches the mood or the state of mind in which Syracuse finds himself.
Jordan: Yes, it was overcast a lot but Chris caught something very beautiful.
Cineaste: This is your eighth film set in Ireland and the only one so far set in Dublin is Michael Collins. You’ve set films in London on two occasions, in New Orleans, Paris, Nice, and most recently New York. In this film, are you in any sense trying to keep away from dealing with contemporary Ireland—that is, Ireland in crisis, Ireland after the fall?
Jordan: There have been lots of movies made in which there is this kind of drive to report contemporary Ireland as it is. But I think this movie is contemporary Ireland as it is. It is just that it is set in a specific part of the country. And the fact that the story is kind of redemptive doesn’t mean that it is any less contemporary than gangs going around Tallaght shooting each other. [Tallaght is a lower-middle-class/working-class area in West Dublin that has had its share of problems of late.] It is contemporary. I set it up in a kind of grungy way. That bar where Maura and her partner, Alex, hang out, that’s very real, that drink-sodden culture is real. I wanted to photograph that kind of reality in a very documentary way. But you’re right—I’ve never made a film in Dublin. I’ve grown up and lived all my life in Dublin but I’ve never made a film in Dublin—I don’t know why. I’ve just written a novel about Dublin. Because this movie took so long to come out, I was so frustrated just waiting, that I wrote an entire novel when I finished the movie and was waiting for it to come out. The novel is set in Dublin.
Cineaste: Is that the story about the double or the doppelgänger?
Jordan: Yes, I’ve divided my character in two. It’s a story in which the experience of one of the characters is mirrored in another. There’s a sort of Northside-Southside divide. The Northsider is working class. The Southsider is middle class. They live in parallel worlds that mirror each other but are very different.
Cineaste: There is a “grungy realism” to the opening scene of Syracuse’s trawler out in the bay—that battered old rust bucket looks like a working trawler. The harbor is an industrial harbor—it’s not some picturesque fishing village. And Syracuse himself is a pretty downbeat character, a divorced father struggling to keep things together. All of these things go to giving the film a contemporary feel. But what is it exactly that you want to reflect?
Jordan: Well, I think it’s very reflective of contemporary Ireland. For example, the only reason Syracuse goes to the priest is because there is no local chapter of AA in the town, and he needs an AA counsellor. Yet you feel that the priest is just sitting there in the church and nobody else is coming near this guy. It’s very reflective of the place the country is in just at the moment. There something barren about Ireland right now. It is as if we are denuded of imagination in some strange way, stripped of all of the traditional solaces we once had.
Cineaste: Do you feel, in a sense, that all of the traditional customs and practices with which Ireland in the past has been associated, rightly or wrongly, and to which Irish people are thought to have had recourse, are gone, have collapsed, or have proved ineffective?
Jordan: In places, it is just as if people have been left with nothing but beautiful landscapes which they can’t bear to look at any more.
Cineaste: The relationship between Syracuse and Annie—that telling of stories to each other—reminded me of the relationship of Jimmy and Rose in The Miracle. There were echoes there also in Annie’s precocious use of language.
Jordan: I hadn’t thought of that. I knew somebody like Annie who was on dialysis. But I wasn’t sure about having a young girl in a wheelchair. I thought it might be a bit manipulative. In Annie’s case, what interested me was the idea you get in a lot of fairy tales that if you wish for something and it happens, there is a good consequence and a bad consequence.
Cineaste: Well, Alex, Maura’s partner, dies and Annie gets his kidney.
Jordan: This is the thing about folk tales—there’s always a tragedy. A life has been gained but also a life has been lost. That’s part of that folk world of wish-fulfillment fantasies turning into tragedies.
Cineaste: In both Ondine and the Selkie stories there are all sorts of unexpected consequences to having one’s wishes fulfilled.
Jordan: But for me, making the film, it becomes a matter of how many levels or layers of irony you can put inside it.
Cineaste: In terms of the actual making of the film, that leaden, oppressive look that you get—was that something you were trying for, or was it simply last summer’s weather?
Jordan: That was there. That was last summer. But it was kind of good in a way because there were heavy skies. Basically we decided to change absolutely nothing. We could have waited for sunlight. We could have redesigned the town in some ways. But actually, I just wanted the film to leave no imprint on the landscape at all, just to work with exactly what was there, what we had. That’s where Christopher Doyle comes in. He’s bold enough to do that. A lot of cameramen would not do that. He was using this Fuji stock. He was pushing it three and four stops, and printing it to compensate. He is the kind of guy that makes decisions in the camera, as he exposes the film, decisions that are irreversible. If the guy’s instincts are wrong you’re kind of fucked in a way. But that’s the kind of person he is. He just goes by his instincts and he makes very bold decisions. I think those decisions can be seen in the way that the film reflects those skies and that landscape.
Cineaste: It does look like a real place where people live and work.
Jordan: Chris had a particular way of doing things. He operated the camera. Most of the stuff was hand-held. A lot of it was shot at sea and we devised these rigs, just basically to strap Chris to the rigging of the boat. So, he got drenched. The camera got drenched. But I think that way of shooting stuff puts you so much in the experience that there’s no other way of achieving that. Normally, when you shoot on boats, you have another boat with big crane rigs and all that other stuff. And we’d absolutely none of that. When we were shooting stuff we just went out on the boat—Colin, Chris, Sam and myself—and that was it. And we just got drenched. Also, when we shot all of the night scenes—and this is one of the virtues, I suppose, of a low budget—we decided to shoot it all day for night, except the scenes in the town. I found that really interesting because on the one hand the skies suited it because they were generally overcast and cloudy, and on the other hand, night photography in a landscape, the way some lighting cameramen try to light it, is always absolute nonsense. Your eye adjusts to moonlight but moonlight doesn’t cast any shadows because it’s so soft. But the camera can’t catch an exposure from moonlight. And so they generally pump in these big heavy lights. But it just doesn’t look right. We did all the night shoots day-for-night. And I think we ended up with the best approximation I’ve seen of what moonlight actually does look like.
Cineaste: The name Syracuse—where did that come from?
Jordan: That came from The Butcher Boy. When we were making The Butcher Boy up in Clones, people were all talking about this Circus and I didn’t know what they were talking about. So, I asked Pat McCabe and he said he was a local character. And I asked him why is he called Circus? And he said because his name was Syracuse. And that’s where it comes from. It’s just people in this country have very odd names sometimes—like Maolshachlan—and this guy was called Syracuse.
Cineaste: So, it doesn’t have any symbolic or historic significance?
Jordan: No, it hasn’t.
Cineaste: What are you doing next?
Jordan: I’m doing a television series, The Borgias, for Showtime. I haven’t started shooting it. We’re doing the prep. At the moment, it seems like the only interesting area left in American cinema. I just heard that Katherine Bigelow is doing something for HBO. The kind of subject matter that commercial cinema allows you to deal with now is so narrow. I’m going to do a forty-hour version of a script that I wrote years ago.
Cineaste: Are you writing the whole series?
Jordan: No. I am the creator. That’s my role, my title. They obviously have the screenplay that I wrote. And I have written the “bible” for the whole series. I’ve written the first two episodes. Another writer—Michael Hirst—is doing a lot of the writing.
Cineaste: He did The Tudors.
Jordan: He wrote Elizabeth as well. So, we’ll see how it goes. It’s very interesting, actually. But I don’t know—it’s weird. I was wondering, what the hell is this television stuff about? Most directors have done it. But I’ve never done it before. You look at Madmen, The Sopranos, The Wire. For the last few years, what you can see on American cable television is far better than anything you ever get to see in the cinema—it’s quite scary. So, I am going to try my utmost to make sure that it is really special.
Cineaste: Will you be directing?
Jordan: I don’t think one person could do it physically. They’ve ordered ten episodes and they shoot them back to back. Maybe I could do two at the beginning and two at the end. There’s really great interest from directors, asking me if they can do it. I was amazed. Do these directors really want to direct two sixty-minute episodes of a series I have written? It’s because the kind of cinema that we used to make is drying up, I’m afraid. The distribution is vanishing. The funding is vanishing. So, that’s what I’m doing. I’m also doing a thing called The Graveyard Book.
Cineaste: How’s that going?
Jordan: It’s going well. It’s a very complicated package of things. They’ve got the financing ready. They’re dancing around a U.S. deal. They say they want to make it in October.
Paul McGuirk lectures in European Cinemas at Trinity College Dublin and is currently working on a full-length study of Neil Jordan’s work entitled From Modernism to Postmodernism: The Fiction & Films of Neil Jordan
Copyright © 2010 by Cineaste Magazine
Cineaste, Vol. XXXV, No. 3