- 22 Mar 10
Neil Jordan's Latest Movie Ondine is a Superb Addition to the Oeuvre of Ireland's Finest Film-Maker, Who Professes His Love For Ireland's Innate 'Craggy Madness'.
The Irish can take credit for a great many innovations and achievements — surfing, splitting the atom, saving civilisation’s bacon through centuries six to eight A.D. — but cinema, for as long as we’ve had such a thing, has often seemed beyond our capabilities.
Letters? We’re all over those suckers. We’re a nation of storytellers with nine Nobel Prize winners to our credit. Big elaborate squiggles down the margins of religious treasures? You better believe it. Movies? We don’t really do movies.
There are a million ancient hardwired reasons why. We can take it all the way back to the Bronze Age and speculate that visual arts have never really been our strong point. Our museums play house to robust, practical things – flat axes, daggers, pots – featuring few of the fruity embellishments one finds in, say, contemporary Iberian remnants.
We have, in our defence, produced the occasional internationally-renowned film director in a lineage dating back to Rex Ingram. We may even have delivered the odd cinematic visionary. Jim Sheridan’s Get Rich or Die Tryin’, a cash-in vehicle for rapper 50 Cent, is far from the director’s best work, but it’s difficult to think of another director who could have rendered Fiddy’s shower-stabbing scene as a mighty Grecian relief.
And then there’s Neil Jordan, a stylist you’d have to hike to Iran or Turkey to find the equal of. He, of course, is the exception that proves the rule. Where most filmmakers and artists have been happy to wallow in rainy realism, Jordan has struck out with fiendish Freudian fables and wicked legends.
“It might have something to do with my mother who was a painter,” says the director. “I always thought about things visually. It was certainly part of the reason I got into filmmaking in the first place. I perceived a lack there. It’s something that has always puzzled me.”
In stark contrast to the rainy realism that has become the Irish artist’s default setting, the Neil Jordan imprint is characterised by cerebral flights of fancy. Even when the filmmaker is not going head-to-head with imagined realms – think High Spirits, Interview with the Vampire and In Dreams – he’s kicking against socio-realistic tropes. Angel and The Crying Game twist political realities into fairy stories. The Butcher Boy and Breakfast on Pluto use grimy circumstance to explore identity politics and diseased dreamscapes.
In this spirit, Mr. Jordan’s latest film is Ondine, a playful demi-mythological romance which marks a sort of homecoming to the territory first mapped by Company of Wolves. The film centres on Syracuse (Colin Farrell), a fisherman who finds a woman (Alicja Bachleda) whom his daughter (Alison Barry) takes for a mermaid.
“There are very obvious attractions,” says Mr. Jordan. “I just started out with an image of a fisherman picking up a girl in his net and was immediately intrigued by the rules. I put those questions into the script: what kind of story is this? So it became a story about storytelling in a way.”
The film, a happy accident that came about when the Hollywood writers’ strike delayed Mr. Jordan’s adaptation of Joe Hill’s novel Heart Shaped Box, comes as a welcome respite from Ireland’s current crop of recession flicks.
“There’s been a lot of pressure on Irish writers and artists to capture gritty urban Ireland”, says the filmmaker. “It’s a valid pursuit even if gritty urban Ireland is no different from any other gritty urban European locale. They used to say there’s no such thing as an Irish novel. Because a novel demands a middle-class readership and that’s what has come about in the last 20 years. But we’ve lost something. If you look at George Fitzmaurice or Flann O’Brien or even Yeats, there's an insane streak of fantasy in Irish culture. The only modern equivalent is Pat McCabe, I suppose. I’ve often wondered where that strain of madness has gone to. I love that craggy madness.”
Is this appealing dementia gone for good, I wonder? Or can something be done to arrest its decline?
“Maybe, it is gone,” says Mr. Jordan. “The purpose of the European project was to modernise Ireland and that has been achieved. But one doesn’t want to get too sentimental about it. I grew up in the sixties and there was the sense that we had a barely functioning veneer of civilisation. The place was completely unstructured. I didn’t notice the Catholic Church or sexual repression as a young man in Dublin. I only remember the madness.”
If Ondine’s thematic originality isn’t enough to get the punters in, the spectacle of watching Colin Farrell falling for his leading lady – he and Ms. Bachlada have since given birth to baby Henry Tadeusz Farrell, who was born on October 7th last year – might just do the trick.
“Do you know I never noticed?” admits the director. “I knew Colin was protective of her, but he was also protective of Alison and others on set. There was a baby before I knew anything was up.”
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