Irish filmmaker Neil Jordan, who doesn't make movies fast enough for my taste, has specialized in sympathizing with the hangdog (think of Stephen Rea in "The Crying Game"), the broken-down (Nick Nolte's "Good Thief") and the spat-upon (cross-dressing Cillian Murphy in "Breakfast on Pluto").
He continues that path with last year's "Ondine" (which didn't open in Austin theatrically, but arrives on DVD from Magnolia), turning his forgiving eye toward a man — both a character and the actor who plays him — working hard to redeem past missteps.
The thespian is Colin Farrell, and I dare say I'm not the only movie lover who was mystified by Farrell's mid-2000s stardom. His popularity seemed to rise in proportion to his badness, from "The Recruit" through "Daredevil" and the epic bore "Alexander," until I so disliked him I was reluctant to see new movies by beloved filmmakers (Terrence Malick, Woody Allen) if he was in the cast.
Then came Martin McDonagh's captivatingly profane "In Bruges" (recently reissued by Universal on Blu-ray), in which Farrell's oversized ego was wounded and his brashness a trigger for comic-tinted tragedy. He seemed to discover (or rediscover) a vulnerability that has served him well since, especially as the Nashville superstar of "Crazy Heart" — a role I would not have wanted him to play in 2003.
In "Ondine," Jordan does Farrell another favor, casting him as a onetime town drunk who is now taking his responsibilities (namely, his daughter who's in a wheelchair) seriously enough to deserve a bit of magic when it comes his way.
Farrell's Syracuse, a fisherman in a small Irish village, is on the brink of poverty when he reels his net in one day to find a beautiful, near-dead woman in it. He saves her, but the mysterious girl refuses to go to a hospital, insisting that he's the only one who can know she exists.
Soon this Ondine is bringing him luck at sea, singing a haunting tune to the waters and watching as Syracuse hauls in loads that are, in a word, miraculous. Is she, as Syracuse's daughter insists, a mythical mermaidlike creature with power over the sea? Yes or no, the seafarer is falling for his catch.
Jordan tells this story like a fable set in the real world (albeit a real world photographed with mist-shrouded beauty by Christopher Doyle), and his refusal to commit to either fact or fantasy is both the charm of "Ondine" and its downfall. In the movie's first half, viewers on the right wavelength will be charmed by it, by the lovely Alicja Bachleda as Ondine (Jordan's camera isn't shy about looking at her body, but is never quite lewd), and by the restrained comedy of Syracuse's efforts to hide his find from neighbors' prying eyes.
But even as mythical explanations for the woman's arrival present themselves, so do less fanciful ones. The idyll is endangered by some fairly pedestrian movie-world menaces, and a few agitated sequences threaten to spoil not only Syracuse's newfound happiness but also our own. In the end, the film is no "The Secret of Roan Inish," but it's a refreshingly gentle vision from a filmmaker whose tales (like his previous movie, the Jodie Foster revenge drama "The Brave One") are often much darker.