Waking Ned Devine (Ireland, 1998)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Ned Devine is dead. The news that he was holding a lottery ticket worth over 6.8 million pounds was too much for old Ned's heart. Now, the tiny Irish village of Tullymore has a decision to make: do they bury Ned's ticket along with him or do they choose one of their own to impersonate Ned and collect the money, then split it 52 ways? Although the answer to this question may not be surprising, the smoothly entertaining manner of the storytelling is. Waking Ned Devine has been a huge hit at every film festival where it has played (and there are a lot of them), and Fox Searchlight is hoping for the same kind of enthusiastic reaction when it begins reaching theaters late in November.

It seems that almost every year, there is one independent, foreign-made motion picture that captivates American audiences (and the Academy) to the point where it posts respectable box office tallies and earns an Oscar nomination. In 1995, that film was Il Postino. Last year, it was The Full Monty. And, while there is not as yet a clear-cut choice for the position in 1998, Fox Searchlight (the distributor that scored big with The Full Monty) is pinning its hopes on Waking Ned Devine. It's not a bad choice, since the film is a proven crowd-pleaser and offers an antidote to the powerful-but-depressing messages served out by the likes of Happiness, The Celebration, American History X, and Hilary and Jackie.

Waking Ned Devine is an unabashed excursion into feel good territory. Director Kirk Jones, making his feature debut, revels in the film's lightheartedness. And, although his movie is not entirely without substance (themes about religion, morality, and spirituality abound, as one can guess from the title character's name), it's basically designed to allow the audience to have fun. The two main characters, Jackie O'Shea (played by veteran Irish actor Ian Bannen) and Michael O'Sullivan (David Kelly, best known as O'Reilly in John Cleese's Fawlty Towers), are as likable as any screen pair, and, even though they're committing a crime, we're with them all the way.

The crime in question is fraud - defrauding the lottery, to be specific. After Jackie and Michael learn that someone from Tullymore is holding the lucky ticket, they set out to discover who it is. Their intention is to "find the winner and make sure we're their best friends when they cash the check." Ultimately, the search leads to the very dead Ned Devine. Rather than let the money go unclaimed, they decide that Michael will pose as Ned, and, when the lottery officials arrive, the rest of the townspeople confirm his identity. Everyone is in agreement, except one disgruntled woman, who claims she can get more money by turning in the population of Tullymore than by participating in the scam.

For decades, the United Kingdom (England, Ireland, Wales, and Scotland) has produced films like this - quirky enterprises that focus on the internal dynamics of the small village. Often, as in recent offerings like The Englishman Who Went up a Hill but Came down a Mountain or The Matchmaker, an outsider acts as a catalyst. That's the case here, where a lottery official's arrival in Tullymore provokes deceptions and a little in-fighting. In reality, however, he's only a plot device. Overall, Waking Ned Devine focuses on the townspeople and, in particular, Jackie; Michael; Jackie's wife, Annie (Fionnula Flanagan, last seen in Some Mother's Son or the TV series "To Have and to Hold"); and a pair of would-be lovers, Finn the pig farmer (James Nesbitt, of Welcome to Sarajevo) and Maggie (Susan Lynch, the selkie in The Secret of Roan Inish).

Waking Ned Devine is filled with wonderful, magical moments and excursions into humor guaranteed to provoke laughter. Who can miss the comedy inherent in the sight of a buck-naked old man zipping along the roads around Tullymore on a motor scooter? Then there's the scene where Jackie and Michael are replacing dead Ned's dentures (Ian Bannen can't keep a straight face - in fact, he completely loses his composure). For the most part, the humor in Waking Ned Devine is innocent, although there are a few biting gems in the dialogue. For example, this is one child's assessment of why he can't be a priest: "I don't think I could work for someone I never met and not get paid for it."

In addition to being both funny and fun, Waking Ned Devine is beautiful to look at. As a director, Jones shows surprising maturity in his selection of shots and the careful, experienced manner in which he has pieced things together. Waking Ned Devine has the feel of something effortless, which is exactly what Jones intends (it should be noted that achieving the appearance of effortlessness is frequently a painstaking and meticulous process). The atmosphere is also strong, with grand vistas and a rich score (by Shaun Davey) that makes heavy use of traditional instruments, such as uileann pipes. Jones has fashioned a visually lush motion picture that captivates with its images of the rolling hills and steep cliffs of a coastal Irish village. (Ironically, not one frame of the movie was filmed in Ireland; all location shooting was done on the Isle of Man.) Combined, these elements make Waking Ned Devine a delightful 95-minute excursion in the company of people who are worth spending the time with.

Waking Ned Devine (Ireland, 1998)

Director: Kirk Jones
Cast: : Ian Bannen, David Kelly, Fionnula Flanagan, Susan Lynch, James Nesbitt, Brendan F. Dempsey, Eileen Dromey, Jimmy Keogh
Screenplay: Kirk Jones
Cinematography: Henry Braham
Music: Shaun Davey
U.S. Distributor: Fox Searchlight
Run Time: 1:35
U.S. Release Date: 1998-11-20
MPAA Rating: "PG"
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1