The relentless charm of Kirk Jones's Waking Ned Devine lies in its embrace of two lovable Irish geezers who manage to work beautiful mischief on the world, in the raw beauty of their sun-splashed coastal village, and in the general notion that Ireland is the land of poetic conversations, enduring friendships, and perfect pints of Guinness.
This is also the party line being advanced by the fledgling Irish movie industry: Ireland as the Emerald Isle, as cradle of enchantment. Political filmmakers continue to beat their drums here and there about "the troubles," and earlier this year an exciting new director named Paddy Breathnach sent us the brilliant gangster farce I Went Down (which promptly sank at U.S. box offices). But for the most part recent Irish movies, at least those that make their way to this side of the Atlantic, ignore contemporary life in favor of vintage romantic allure, like The Secret of Roan Inish (1994), or fairy tale myth, like Into the West (1992). The Irish Tourist Board has to love it.
Waking Ned Devine, which shows us what happens when someone (but who?) among the 52 residents of picturesque little Tullymore wins seven million pounds in the national lottery, falls squarely in this realm. It's lovely to look at. It's a social fable. It features performances so warm and captivating that as soon as the credits roll you feel like calling Aer Lingus for plane reservations. It has gentle scheming, amusing gold-digging, twinkle, and dash. And the whole damn thing may be just a wee bit too precious for words.
Let's not go hard on Ian Bannen, Fionnula Flanagan, and David Kelly, the film's appealing stars, because to do so would be a fool's errand. As Jackie O'Shea, a rumpled villager who favors the occasional tot of Jameson's and a wind-whipped ride on his motorcycle, the gifted veteran Bannen, who has appeared in more than 70 films in the past four decades, grabs hold of your heartstrings in scene one and refuses to let go for the next 91 minutes. This is the fellow you hope to meet in a pub on your next trip to the Old Sod: garrulous and life-loving, with a touch of the anarchist in him. As Jackie's wife Annie, Flanagan is the perfect foil: earthy and skeptical, a bit suspicious of her husband's scams but still head over heels for him after all these years.
But it's Kelly, a bony septuagenarian with the craggy features of a Gaelic saint, who delivers the comedic coup de gráce as the ancient Michael O'Sullivan, Jackie's best friend. O'Sullivan has spent his entire life in Tullymore, among the thatched roofs, the squealing pigs, and the hay bales strewn scenically on the rolling emerald hillsides. He's the innocent soul of the place, the rustic without guile, the heartbeat. So it is Michael whom Jackie chooses when it comes time to defraud the jolly lottery official from Dublin (Brendan F. Dempsey) out of the huge jackpot. As it happens writer-director Jones, just up from TV commercials, provides them with the perfect ruse: A third man, their old friend Ned Devine (Jimmy Keogh), is the actual winner, but the shock of watching his numbers come up on the telly has struck poor Ned stone dead. Now Jackie and Michael intend to collect the millions anyway, in honor of their friend, in the name of right, and because that's what he would have wanted. Are there obstacles? Of course. Will the entire village get in on the act? Perhaps.
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In any case Waking Ned Devine never runs short of charm or local color. On the edges of the movie a lovely colleen named Maggie (Susan Lynch) finds herself weighing the merits of two suitors: odiferous Pig Finn (James Nesbitt) and playboy Pat Mulligan (Fintan McKeown). Her son (Robert Hickey) needs a father, the kindly visiting priest (Dermot Kerrigan) is about to be reassigned, and crazy old Lizzy Quinn (Eileen Dromey) continues to torment everybody. At Fitzgerald's, the tiny pub that serves as remote Tullymore's town hall and communal living room, the assembled citizenry is abuzz about the lottery winner and what must be done and who's going to do it. You almost can't hear the gossip and feel the greed for all the fellow-feeling surging through the place.
For a beginner Jones sure knows how to raise the emotional ante. Almost before you can say The Full Monty, he puts bewildered old Michael, stark naked, at the controls of Jackie's motorcycle. He also cooks up a sweet conspiracy of heroic proportions, topped off by a heart-wrenching funeral and a eulogy full of fluent double meanings and lovely sentiments. You may need two hankies just to get through it. Here's a filmmaker already so skilled at turning an audience inside out that he can transform a fatal road accident into the biggest laugh of the movie.
In other words Waking Ned Devine works up enough feel-good momentum that in the end it's irresistible. Credit Jackie O'Shea and Michael O'Sullivan, lovable goats that they are, for most of the magic. Then give young Jones a well-deserved nod. And don't forget beguiling Ireland itself. Irish moviemakers may not be telling us everything that's going on in their country, but they sure know what works.
Waking Ned Devine.
Written and directed by Kirk Jones. Starring Ian Bannen, David Kelly, Fionnula Flanagan, and James Nesbitt.