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Film Review: Waking Ned Devine

Waking Ned Devine (1998; Directed by Kirk Jones)

A lovely, gentle movie whose warm, whiskey-soaked glow distracts from its concurrent conservative communal embrace of grand, fundamentally dishonest myth-telling. Built more for magnanimous smiles than for belly-laughs, Waking Ned Devine (entitled just Waking Ned in its original domestic release in the British Isles) is redolent of simple joys rather than of diverting incident. But it’s also hawking a romanticized view of the simplicity, poverty, and insular groupthink tendencies of small-town life and reduces those who don’t subscribe to such notions to antagonists and outsiders whose dissent must be silenced.

If you aren’t Irish or a Celticophile or otherwise situated in the upper-middle-class boomer demographic that turned the film into an international hit upon its release, a plot synopsis is in order. Upon learning that a resident of their coastal Irish village has won a national lottery, local elder gadfly Jackie O’Shea (Ian Bannen) and his scrawny best bud Michael O’Sullivan (David Kelly) become engaged in sussing out the victor. They soon narrow it down to the reclusive Ned Devine (Jimmy Keogh), but Jackie discovers the winner’s corpse clutching the golden ticket, having evidently died of shock.

waking_ned_devineUnwilling to allow such a potential windfall for their poor village slip away, Jackie and Michael scheme to have the latter pose as Ned in order to convince a National Lottery official (Brendan Dempsey) sent to verify that all is in order before awarding the money. Their deception presents a definite problem (and some expertly-drawn irony) when the agent visits the town during Ned’s funeral (hence the pun of the title, as Ned is both “awakened” as the alias in a con and collectively remembered by his fellow villagers). But it’s nothing that the wily small-towners, and the resourceful Jackie in particular, can’t handle, after all.

The charm and warmth of the performances carries Waking Ned through rougher patches like the soapy melodrama of a romantic subplot and tangential chats between a fatherless boy and the local substitute priest. And even if the Celtic Isle of Man stands in for Ireland proper, the sweeping beauty of its landscapes, accompanied by alternately swelling and frantic fiddle-and-drums music, hold in the mind either way. It’s a kindly film, nicely written, earnestly acted, its humour stemming from quirks of character and language and from exquisitely-structured irony rather than crudeness or slapstick (although Michael O’Sullivan’s nude motorcycle ride strays a little close, as memorable as the moment is).

But there’s also an essential inborn conservatism (or patronizing liberalism) to its parable of a small-town community collaborating to fleece sophisticated modern institutions out of their money. The Ned Devine lie stems from the perhaps-not-entirely-accurate myth of the tight-knit rural-based community and its fundamental (moral) superiority to urban life, but it also narrativizes the well-meaning disingenuousness that has made that myth necessary. The community pretends that Michael is Ned for the sake of the common good, and the simultaneous funeral and wake indicates that they intend no disrespect to the deceased. But even in a light gem of a comedy film, fraud is fraud.

The film is so generally good-natured that it would seem anal-retentive to complain about something like this, but Waking Ned‘s fraudulent collective myth is defended from exposure by violence, albeit creatively disavowed, bloodless comic violence. Jackie has the entire town sign a contract (sealed with an accompanying shot of whiskey) agreeing to play along with the lottery ticket ruse to minimize the risk of it being found out. All of the citizens cooperate save one, a foul-tempered elderly lady named Lizzie Quinn (Eileen Dromey). As it happens, the reward for exposing a fraud to the authorities in the case of lottery winnings is higher than the individual cut of the £7 million prize that each town resident would get for cooperating with Jackie’s scheme, if it succeeds. It’s a stark mathematical contrast between the collective interest and self-centered individualism, and of course the ornery crone chooses the latter (she has been excluded from the community to some extent due to her curmudgeonly ways, so the chickens of their ostracism have simply come home to roost). But just as she’s dialing the National Lottery office from the town’s only payphone, a set of comic coincidences conspire to send the booth airborne over a cliff with Lizzie inside. Thus, the collective cause is preserved, but only by the untimely end of the representative of pecuniary self-interest.

I point out these implications simply to provide a full picture of Waking Ned Devine‘s set of meanings, not to suggest that they necessarily undermine its charm and its warmth. It’s a nice, enjoyable, well-made little movie that’s grounded in a fundamentally dishonest, rosy-glasses view of small-town life. It’s certainly not the only movie that could be described that way, and it’s probably even better than most of a similar ilk. It could even be argued that by narrativizing the concept of the collective myth as self-evidently as he does, writer/director Kirk Jones is subtly critiquing its unsavoury possibilities and demonstrating that he’s aware of them despite his film’s embrace of quintessentially Irish goodness. It’s possible to do this without romanticizing rural society; Martin McDonagh’s Aran Islands plays manage it, although their scabrous and cynical comic tone is light years from Jones’ approach with this film. Waking Ned Devine could be critiquing these elements in a subtly, gentler way than the uncompromising McDonagh chose to, but it’s much easier to take its celebration of small-town qualities at face value, ultimately.

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