Welcome to FrockTalk, the web’s only costume-based movie review site. The goal of Frocktalk is to shed light on the magnificent artistry of costume design in motion pictures. Reviews on this site are written by working costume designers in the entertainment industry – people who know, better than anyone, what it takes to make it all happen. The focus of FrockTalk is not to comment on the big flashy costume dramas, but to call attention to the seemingly ordinary costume design work in film that silently and persuasively moves the audience toward understanding the characters. Costume design for motion pictures is an art form that deserves more recognition than it usually gets. Fancy, pretty costumes do not always equal effective, appropriate costumes. The art of the costume is in letting the audience know who the character is, before the actor even has a chance to open his mouth. Read on, and enjoy. ** CAUTION: ALL REVIEWS CONTAIN SPOILERS! **

Ondine

Review Date: 6-10-10

Release Date: 6-4-10

Runtime: 111 min.

Period: Contemporary

Costume Designer: Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh

Ondine is a film directed by Neil Jordan (The Crying Game). Jordan is a great director, and has a knack for magic realism. Such is the case with Ondine – ostensibly, a movie about a Selkie (a mythological seal-woman, not unlike a mermaid), and her relationship with a father and daughter in Ireland.

NB: There are major SPOILERS in this review, so stop now if you want to see the movie unspoiled!!

Colin Farrell plays Syracuse, a down-on-his-luck fisherman and father to young girl with kidney failure, Annie (Alison Barry). One day, out at sea, Syracuse catches a beautiful young woman (Ondine, played by Alicja Bachleda) in his net. She is terrified that anyone should see her, and doesn’t want to go to the hospital, though it appears she is suffering from hypothermia and is quite ill. Syracuse drops her off at his deceased mother’s cabin, where she can recover in peace and quiet.

Annie is so sick; she must use a wheelchair to get around. She lives with her drunk mother Maura (Dervla Kirwan) and (mom’s) Scottish boyfriend. Syracuse left Maura and stopped drinking to be a better father to Annie. He has custody of her, part time, and is responsible for things like taking her to doctor visits. Annie is in desperate need of a kidney transplant and undergoes dialysis regularly. Syracuse tells her a story about the woman he found in his net, framing it as a fairy tale. Annie, too smart to be fooled, sees through the story. She gets a motorized wheelchair that enables her to keep up with her peers and investigate things she finds suspicious… like Syracuse’s story.

Long and short of it – Annie discovers Ondine at the cabin. She and Ondine become friends. Syracuse buys/steals some clothes for Ondine in town. Annie wants Ondine to stay with them forever, but in order to do so (and according to Selkie mythology) Ondine must bury her “seal coat” so she can remain human. One day, while swimming with Annie, Ondine retrieves something from the water – her seal coat? – and she and Annie bury it in the back yard. Side note: a Selkie can also grant a person a wish. This comes into play later.

Meanwhile, a mean-looking man is cruising the small town, accompanied by ominous music. Annie thinks it’s Ondine’s Selkie husband, coming to track her down and steal her back to the sea. Ondine goes out fishing with Syracuse, and sings a haunting song. The fish practically jump into Syracuse’s boat – he can’t believe his luck. Coast guard officers come to inspect Syracuse’s boat and the fish he’s caught, and they discover Ondine hiding in a storage compartment. She’s been seen – soon the entire town knows about her.

Syracuse takes her to town and buys her some proper clothes. There is a big water sports festival in town. The mean-looking man is there. Annie, wanting Ondine to prove her Selkiness, drives her wheelchair off the pier, forcing Ondine to rescue her. After the rescue, Ondine and Syracuse hook up.

The mean-looking man goes on the hunt for Ondine. Maura and her Scot boyfriend get drunk at a local pub, with little Annie haplessly tagging along. Syracuse comes to the cabin to find it ransacked. He also finds Ondine, and (using her Selkie persuasion) she makes a wish that Annie wasn’t sick. Syracuse wishes that Ondine could stay. Driving, they come upon the scene of an accident. It’s Maura’s minivan. Ambulances, blood, police, chaos. Ondine freaks. Syracuse tackles a cop to get to his daughter.

In the hospital, the doctor tells Syracuse that there is a tissue match for his daughter’s kidney. We also see the mean-looking man at the hospital. Ondine confronts him. They speak a different language; he’s mad at her – she wants her freedom.

Later, we are on a ship watching the funeral for Maura’s Scottish boyfriend (whom she killed by driving drunk and crashing the minivan into a building). Maura dumps his ashes in the sea. Turns out he had a wife and three kids in Scotland and she knew nothing of it. Despondent, Maura and Syracuse go to a bar for his wake. Maura pressures Syracuse into drinking a shot of whiskey in his honor, because to not do so would be the utmost disrespect. Syracuse, proud of his sobriety, balks. And yet ultimately, he caves… and goes on a bender. Maura plants the seed in Syracuse’s head that Ondine is no good.

He stumbles to the cabin and finds Ondine. He takes her out to an island with a lighthouse – he is going to take her “home”, back to the sea. He abandons her there, and heads for home. He awakes in a tree, hung over. We see Ondine dive into the sea.

Later, he and Annie are watching TV, switching channels, when they come upon Sigur Rós in concert. As Jónsi Birgisson sings the haunting melody of All Right, Syracuse recognizes it as the song Ondine sang to the fish. Syracuse puts two and two together and starts thinking that maybe Ondine is not a Selkie after all… and he’s just deserted her on an island with a mean-looking man chasing her!

He takes his boat and rushes to the lighthouse island. He finds Ondine on the rocks, and she tells him the truth: She is a drug mule from Romania, and was on a drug run with the mean-looking man. When the coast guard came to arrest her and the mean-looking man (Vladic, played by Emil Hostina), she jumped overboard. At first she swam, then she floated, then she sank… and that’s how Syracuse caught her. Her name is Joanna.

Syracuse takes her to his home, where Vladic is waiting, holding little Annie hostage. A fight ensues, and Vladic wants his drug stash. Ondine/Joanna shows Vladic where she and Annie buried her “seal coat” (which is actually the drug stash), but it’s not there. Annie admits that she dug up the seal coat and buried it so that Ondine/Joanna could never find it – she didn’t want Ondine/Joanna to turn back into a Selkie and leave her.

Long story short, they end up on a boat, trying to pull up a lobster cage, and the two bad guys end up in the water, a gun is involved, and that is that. Ondine/Joanna and Syracuse get married at sea (because they love each other and also so that she can have Irish citizenship and not be deported while awaiting trial?). The end.

So, I chose to tell you about this film because the costumes play a part in the magic realism. The average filmgoer would never notice the trick, but I’m going to break it down for you.

When we first meet Ondine in the fisherman’s net, she wears a crocheted/knit dress in a brownish/grayish color. Let’s call it SEAL brown. Okay: this is a dress the color of seal fur, and crocheted like a fisherman’s net. That is a tip-off to something different from the norm, because most women don’t wear seal-brown crocheted dresses. It’s uncommon. Let’s call this her “Selkie” dress.

Selkie Dress

Selkie Dress

When she starts to live at Syracuse’s dead mom’s house, she wears the clothing that was left there by Syracuse’s mom, and what style his mom must have had: a dark green shag fur turn-out coat, brown duster, red granny boots, a pink smock, Wellington boots… Ondine utilizes all of these garments, and puts them together in a way that a child (or someone unfamiliar with the common conventions of dress) might. It’s interesting. We believe she’s a Selkie because she has an innocent way about her, and that innocence is reflected in her mode of dress.

Syracuse buys Ondine a dress from the local shop – it’s black (could be rayon?) with a small white pattern on it. Ondine wears this dress throughout the film, interspersed with the other pieces. She never wears the seal-brown crocheted/knit “Selkie” dress again, until…

Black rayon dress with white pattern

Black rayon dress with white pattern

Syracuse abandons Ondine at the lighthouse island. When he drops her off there, she wears the black rayon dress with white pattern, the Wellington boots, and the dark green fur coat. She watches him leave, and we see the full view of this costume. Later, when she decides to jump into the ocean (to swim back to land? Or to go to her Selkie “home”?) she wears the seal-brown crocheted/knit dress. She strips off the dark green fur coat and reveals the crocheted/knit dress underneath. Magic realism.

Lighthouse Island, about to jump into the sea.

Lighthouse Island, about to jump into the sea.

This switcheroo is done to try to make the audience believe that she actually IS a Selkie. It’s not like she wadded up the “Selkie” dress and carried it with her in her pocket to the lighthouse island. This costume change was made on purpose, with the intention of leading the audience to believe she had some kind of magical power to transform herself back into a Selkie, the same seal-colored girl we met in the beginning.

Lighthouse island

Lighthouse island

So I just had to point it out.

The rest of the costumes in the film are very interesting. Syracuse wears some beautiful knits – the Irish are known for their sweaters, and they are put to brilliant use here. Observe:

Beautiful knits

Beautiful knits

When we first meet him, Syracuse is dressed for work. He wears full fisherman regalia, and I think it’s painterly and quite beautiful. Of course, the fact that Colin Farrell is in the costume might have something to do with that.

The color palette used for Syracuse is remarkable in its absence of color. Only toward the end of the film do we see a sliver of color – light blue kind of a fair-isle-sweater vibe with red over sweater.

And I would be quite remiss if I didn’t mention the superb Stephen Rea as the priest. You might remember Stephen Rea from The Crying Game. He plays Syracuse’s friend and confidant in this film, and provides some much-appreciated comic relief. The clerical garb suits him, don’t you think?

The one character I would love to talk about in detail is Maura, little Annie’s drunk mother, and Syracuse’s ex. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any pictures of her costumes anywhere. You will have to take my word for it – her costumes are brilliant. She is portrayed as a sad, over-decorated, deteriorating Christmas tree. It’s powerful. Please see the film just for her costumes and her performance.

I enjoyed Ondine very much in that it fully utilizes costumes to tell the story. I think that the “aha” moment in the film comes as a bit of a surprise, and the costumes are a big, brilliant part of it. I can’t wait to see what Neil Jordan does next. Congrats to Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh and her crew on a job very well done!!

— KMB

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