The names Ian Bannen and David Kelly may not be familiar, but their mischievous faces will be. Senior citizens with nearly a century of experience between them, they’re a pair of droll old souls with the comic wisdom of the ages in their smiles. Together they turn “Waking Ned Devine” into a roguish and delightful comedy of duplicity that’s as entertaining as it is sly.
Though it’s the first film for writer-director Kirk Jones, a top commercial director from the United Kingdom, “Waking Ned” is part of the great tradition of daft, cheerful British comedies. Linked in spirit to the understated Ealing studio classics of decades past--"Kind Hearts and Coronets” and “The Lavender Hill Mob” to name two--but with a peppy modern brashness added in, this picture proves that laughter and smiles can be coaxed out of the old moves if they’re done with deftness and panache.
“Waking Ned” is set firmly in the mythical movie-Ireland of tiny towns and lilting brogues (though in truth filmed on the Isle of Man), where genial eccentrics trade amusing lines and the only telephone is outside the city limits. What would happen in such a place--Tully More by name, population 52--if a local won a 6.8 million-pound prize in the Irish national lottery? What indeed.
It’s Jackie O’Shea (Bannen) who first figures out from a small item in the Irish Times that someone in Tully More has hit the jackpot. Good-natured but with a bit of larceny in his bones, Jackie, admittedly “not a great man for telling things the way they are,” has a plan to fit the situation.
As he explains it to his lifelong friend Michael O’Sullivan (Kelly), Jackie wants to apply “the very best of Irish brains” to figure out who the winner is before the prize is claimed. Then he’ll so ingratiate himself with the lucky individual that “I’ll be their best friend by the time they cash the check.”
Sounds simple enough, but, as in all classic comedies, nothing goes quite as planned. For once the winner is discovered (no easy task, as it turns out), so many elaborate feints and dodges prove necessary that Jackie’s level-headed wife Annie (Fionnula Flanagan) has reason to worry how it will turn out.
Even the honest Michael, who’s never told a lie in his life, gets drawn into this increasingly complex and humorous web to the point where he finds himself riding hellbent for leather on a motorbike wearing nothing but a helmet and some sensible shoes. And that’s just the beginning of his pains.
All this playful greed plays out against a background of wall-to-wall characters ranging in age from ancient town witch Lizzie Quinn (Eileen Dromey) to fatherless young Maurice (Robert Hickey), who tells the impoverished local priest he wouldn’t want his job because “I don’t think I could work for someone I never met and not get paid for it.”
Maurice’s mother, the wild and beautiful Maggie (Susan Lynch), who earns money writing verse for greeting cards, is the heart of “Waking Ned’s” subplot, the battle for her fetching hand. Maggie’s in love with the luckless Pig Finn (James Nesbitt), but can’t abide the smell his poor animals give off.
“If it wasn’t for the pigs,” she tells Finn many a time, “we’d be settled by now.” Will the basket of “fruity soaps” provided by Jackie help Finn clean up romantically? Stay tuned.
All the actors in “Waking Ned” are smooth and practiced performers who inhabit these roles like they’ve lived them all their lives. But few can touch stars Bannen (nominated for an Oscar back in 1966 for “Flight of the Phoenix”) and Kelly. Playing off each other beautifully, with a lifetime of skills in their every move, they create a charming comedy of winks and nods that is inescapably engaging.
“Waking Ned” is, of course, nothing if not traditional, old-fashioned and small-scaled, its humor depending on such familiar situations as a battle of wits between country lads and an official from the big city. No new ground gets broken, nothing is done that hasn’t been done before. But if this film doesn’t make you want to smile, you’ve no one to blame but yourself.
* MPAA rating: PG for nudity, language and thematic elements. Times guidelines: Everything is as mild as can be.
‘Waking Ned Devine’
Ian Bannen: Jackie O’Shea
David Kelly: Michael O’Sullivan
Fionnula Flanagan: Annie O’Shea
Susan Lynch: Maggie
James Nesbitt: Pig Finn
A Tomboy Films production, in association with the Gruber Brothers, Mainstream SA, Bonaparte Films Ltd., the Isle of Man Film Commission and Overseas Film Group with the participation of Canal +, released by Fox Searchlight Pictures. Director Kirk Jones. Producers Glynis Murray, Richard Holmes. Executive producer Alexandre Heylen. Screenplay Kirk Jones. Cinematographer Henry Braham. Editor Alan Strachan. Costumes Rosie Hackett. Music Shaun Davey. Production design John Ebden. Art director Mark Tanner. Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes.
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