Waking Ned Devine
MPAA Rating : PG
Year of Release : 1998
Stars : Ian Bannen (Jackie O'Shea), David Kelly (Michael O'Sullivan), Fionnula Flanagan (Annie O'Shea), Susan Lynch (Maggie), James Nesbitt (Pig Finn), Maura O'Malley (Mrs. Kennedy), Robert Hickey (Maurice), Paddy Ward (Brendy), James Ryland (Dennis Fitzgerald)
Except for a brief dream sequence, we never see the titular character of the Irish comedy "Waking Ned Devine" alive. No, Ned is dead from the beginning of the film--sitting in his armchair in front of his television set, a winning lottery ticket worth 6.8 million pounds clutched in his fingers. Dead of shock we are left to assume, a smile plastered across his face, his joyful eyes indicating that the excitement of having won the big jackpot was too much for his aged heart to take.
But, that doesn't stop the populace of the tiny Irish hamlet Tulaigh Mohr (or Tully More)--all 52 of them--from trying to cash in on Ned's fortune (or is that misfortune?). Led by two spirited geezers, Jackie O'Shea (Ian Bannen) and Michael O'Sullivan (David Kelly), the town's resourceful population bands together to trick a lottery official from Dublin into believing that Michael is Ned Devine, alive and well, so the check can be issued and each person can get a cut of the winnings.
"Waking Ned Divine" is an inspired if sometimes uneven offering, mixing broad physical comedy with touching melodrama and a few hints of dark black humor (just look at what happens to the one grouchy town citizen who doesn't get in on the plan). Directed by first-time writer-director Kirk Jones, a veteran of British TV commercials, the film is light on its feet and dodgy, relying almost entirely on its colorful cast of Irish characters to carry through an ambiguously moral story about stealing and duplicity that somehow comes out as an ode to generosity and the feeling of solidarity among neighbors.
The success of the film is largely due to the actors, especially Bannen and Kelly. Bannen, who looks a bit like Jack Lemmon, is a veteran of some 75 films, and he holds the center of the film with the kind of wit and dignity that only age can bring. His Jackie is a scheming, conniving, richly inventive old codger who is the kind of guy you would love to sit back with in a pub and knock down a couple of pints. His character is aided by his supportive, no-nonsense wife, Annie, played with charm and beauty by Fionnula Flanagan.
However, the real stand-out character, the one you're most likely to remember, is David Kelly's Michael. Kelly is a unique screen presence--scrawny and wrinkled like an old glove, he has great comic timing and a real sense of human dignity. His ability to play both the comedic and the dramatic are on display in numerous scenes, the former most obvious when he is trying to beat the lottery official back to Ned Devine's cottage, which forces him to ride the backways on a motorcycle completed naked. The scenes between him and the lottery official are well-scripted and directed by Jones, with Kelly making the most of a character who has never lied once in his life, and is suddenly pushed into the position of impersonating someone else in order to steal money. On the other hand, there is a funeral scene where Jackie is supposedly giving a eulogy about Ned, but it is really a disguised ode to his friendship with Michael, and the look on Kelly's face is deeply touching in its sincere gratitude and warmth.
But, don't get the wrong idea--"Waking Ned Devine" is not an overly sentimental film. It has some melodramatic subplots, such as the one about a complicated romance between Maggie, a single mother (Susan Lynch), and Finn, an honest pig farmer (James Nesbitt). But, even the sentimental aspects of the film are tainted with humor and sarcasm--the whole problem with the relationship between Maggie and Finn is that she can't stand the way he smells, and even some fruity scented soap isn't enough to do the job.
In fact, many scenes in the film are really quite vicious in a humorous, Monty Python sort of way. Note the twisted scene where Jackie and Michael try to rearrange the frozen expression of happiness on Ned Devine's corpse, or the scene where someone is killed in a phone booth that gets hit by a car and falls hundreds of feet down a cliff. In another movie, some of this might be construed as a bit sick, but because the overall tone of "Waking Ned Devine" is so breezy and devil-may-care, it ends up being delightfully charming instead of off-putting.
©1999 James Kendrick