During last year's writer's strike in Hollywood, filmmaker Neil Jordan returned to his home in a scenic, un-touristy portion of southwestern Ireland and began to write a story just for himself, just to write.
"I'd had this image for a while of this fisherman pulling a girl up in his nets, finding this beautiful girl and pulling her out of the water," Jordan said. "It was kind of an extraordinary image and I didn't know what to do with it. I sat down and said, 'I'll see where this wants to go.' "
That single image led Jordan to "Ondine," which had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. The film stars Colin Farrell -- "I kind of wrote it with Colin in mind," Jordan allowed -- as Syracuse, a fisherman in an isolated Irish fishing village who indeed pulls a woman (Alicja Bachleda) up in his nets. Believing her to be some sort of sea creature, Syracuse takes her in and protects her, and she in turn interjects herself into his life, especially his relationship with his terminally ill daughter.
In building out the story, Jordan, an Academy Award winner for his screenplay for "The Crying Game," crafted a film that explores the need for fantasy in everyday life, the extent to which we can accept the most outrageous of ideas if we want to believe badly enough. Grounding the story is Syracuse's turbulent relationship with the mother of his daughter and his own struggles with alcoholism. In a town too small for an Alcoholics Anonymous group, Syracuse goes to confession and makes the begrudging local priest (frequent Jordan collaborator Stephen Rea) his impromptu sponsor.
"That's for me when the character began to make sense," said Jordan of the gently comic scenes between Syracuse and the priest. "He doesn't loathe the church, but it's a set of moral precepts that haven't helped him. He insists on going in there and saying, 'You're my AA buddy, you're going to listen to me'. And on the one hand it expressed the character, and it also expressed that strange need for balance between fantasy and reality that story as a whole expressed."
Farrell has been open in the past about his struggles with alcohol abuse, and so it is natural to want to read his real-life back story into the life of his character. In some sense it is even tempting to consider "Ondine" as Farrell's variation on last year's "The Wrestler" with Mickey Rourke, where an actor and role intersect at just the right moment in time.
"It doesn't make it any more attractive, or make me hesitant to be a part of it," said Farrell of considering to play the part of an alcoholic. "Maybe what it does is the whole world of addiction and alcoholism is demystified for me. I understand what it is because I've been through my version of it. So it's completely demystified, which means I'm cool to have a little bit of fun with it, and I also understand the gravity of it. It's serious business, and I understand the mechanism of it a little bit.
Nevertheless, Farrell saw the dramatic potential of the role straight-away.
"I had tremendous empathy for the character of Syracuse and the nobility of his journey through life, because he completely lacked in any sense of self-pity," Farrell said. "This is a man who lost his father, possible never met his father."
"His father was a traveler," interjected Jordan. "Critical information."
"Why didn't we get into that?" asked Farrell before continuing his original thought. "His wife left him, he's a recovering alcoholic and he's got a terminally ill daughter. As an actor you go, oh, the drama, the pain -- or I do anyway, as I tend to the potential to be histrionic. But he has no self-pity at all. He's just getting on with the business of living and doing the best he can do."
Perhaps adding to the intersection of fact and fiction, fantasy and real life in "Ondine," Farrell, who also had the film "Triage" playing at the festival, confirmed while in Toronto that he and costar Bachleda are expecting a baby together.
"I think he's a pretty rare actor, and not just for Ireland," said Jordan of his leading man. "You're always looking for two things, you're looking for stardom, that huge marquee thing, and you're looking for authenticity. And in a way they are totally opposite of each other, and to find them in the same person is just remarkable."
-- Mark Olsen