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Beguiling Irish Lies

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 11, 1998

  Movie Critic

Waking Ned Devine
David Kelly and Ian Bannen are charming conspirators in "Waking Ned Devine." (Fox Searchlight)

Kirk Jones
Ian Bannen;
David Kelly;
Fionnula Flanagan;
Susan Lynch;
James Nesbitt
Running Time:
1 hour, 31 minutes
Contains a couple of naked senior citizens, quaint profanity and comic manipulation of a corpse
The best thing about "Waking Ned Devine" – and there are many good things about it – is a character by the melodious name of Michael O'Sullivan. (Okay, I may be slightly biased, but how can anyone with a name so redolent of the Emerald Isle, so suggestive of leprechaun wit and charm, fail to entertain?)

Like Bill Forsyth's 1983 "Local Hero," which surely did wonders for Scottish tourism, "Waking Ned Devine" taps into that mother lode of offbeat charisma, the rural Celtic village. In this case, the setting is not a Scottish seaside town but Tully More, a tiny farming community of 52 eccentrics ensconced in the hilly hinterlands of the Irish Republic.

When it is announced that an unnamed denizen of Tully More holds the winning ticket to the 7 million-pound Irish lottery, 69-year-old Michael O'Sullivan (David Kelly) and 72-year-old best friend Jackie O'Shea (Ian Bannen) set out to unearth the winner and ingratiate themselves with him or her in hopes of sharing in the windfall.

After plying the townsfolk with numerous pints of Guinness, expensive fruity soaps for the odoriferous local farmer, "Pig" Finn (James Nesbitt), and a roast chicken dinner cooked for the entire population, O'Sullivan and O'Shea discover that, amid their neighbors' emphatic denials of new wealth, one elderly citizen, Ned Devine, has been keeping a curiously low profile. Naturally, the conniving pair conclude that Devine (Jimmy Keogh) must have something to hide, so off they trudge in the rain with a plate of leftovers to insinuate themselves into Ned's good graces.

It turns out, though, that the shock of winning has sent Neddy-boy into cardiac arrest in his pajamas. As any good Irishman would do when confronted with a fortune in the hands of a dead man with no apparent relatives, our heroes decide that Mr. O'Sullivan will impersonate the late Mr. Devine – but only long enough to convince Lotto representative Jim Kelly (Brendan F. Dempsey) that he is the rightful winner.

Aside from the fact that the doddering O'Sullivan is the world's worst liar (he must be the sole Irishman who has never kissed the Blarney stone), the only hitch in the plan now is that they must gain the complicity of the rest of the balky population in order to fool the visiting Kelly.

Fraud was never more fun, nor conspirators more cuddly than Kelly and Bannen's sly schemers. The plot is far from intricate, but "Waking Ned Devine" more than makes up for its narrative simplicity with a uniformly engaging cast of Hibernian oddballs. In addition to the felonious pair of senior citizens (who showcase their scrawny buttocks in a hilarious buff-bathing and nude-motorbike-riding scene), the residents of Tully More include a naive young priest (Dermot Kerrigan), a harridan in a motorized wheelchair (Eileen Dromey) hellbent on exposing the plot and a lovely and defiant unwed mother (Andie MacDowell look-alike Susan Lynch). Speculation about when (and if) she will break down and marry lover Pig Finn and whether her smelly suitor is really the father of her illegitimate son Maurice (Robert Hickey) provides grist for much of the film's delicious subplot.

First-time writer and director Kirk Jones, who comes from a background in television commercials, wisely avoids the fancy effects and implausible story elements that weigh down so much modern cinema, focusing instead on the natural allure of his rustic setting and the seemingly effortless appeal of his actors.

Like another quirky import, last year's left-field hit "The Full Monty," "Waking Ned Devine" is a feel-good film that manages to mine hard times and social concerns without disrupting the quaint landscape. Its mileage derives mostly from the considerable personal magnetism of the players rather than from any heavy message it pretends to put across.

In the sweetly cynical world according to "Ned Devine," it takes a village – not to mention a little larceny – to raise a few million pounds.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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