Waking Ned Devine
A Film by Kirk Jones
This latest entry in the "Full Monty Sweepstakes" (for low-key, small-budget English/Irish movies that go on to make millions) is a pleasant little film that gets a bit mired down in sentimentality and cliche, and so misses the mark. First-time writer/director Kirk Jones, backed by the production team that made the delightfully off-beat but little-seen Shooting Fish acquits himself respectably, but promises a bit more than he can ultimately deliver.
A character comedy in the manner of such classic ensemble pieces as The Lavender Hill Mob and Tight Little Island (or The Full Monty for that matter), Waking Ned Devine, gets most of it life from energetic performances by its two leads, David Kelly and Ian Bannen. Both actors are on the far side of sixty, but the spirit and vitality of their work is what gives the film its drive. Together with a talented cast of character actors that includes Fionulla Flanagan and James Ryland, they create a portrait of life in a tiny Irish village that is humorous and charming. Although it slips into occasional paroxysms of sentimentality, the conviction of the actors helps the story over the mawkish places.
The story revolves around a character who has no lines and no movement, the eponymous Ned Devine. He dies off-screen before the film begins, apparently from shock at having won a multi-million pound prize in the lottery. When news broadcasts reveal that someone in the tiny hamlet of Tully Mor holds the winning ticket, local retirees Jackie O'Shea and Michael Sullivan (Bannen and Kelly, respectively) set out to find out who it is, and entice the winner to share.
After fruitless but funny efforts to identify the winner, the process of elimination eventually leads them to the deceased Mr. Devine. Finding him dead in his chair in front of the "telly" with the ticket still in his hand, O'Shea and Sullivan immediately begin to plot how to keep the money in the village.
The ramifications of their scheme and the comic situations that evolve in the process of trying to carry it out form the body of the film. From a naked motorcycle ride to a funeral eulogy delivered in honor of a living member of the audience, situations and characters unfold to give loving and amusing glimpses of human nature.
The film lets down, however, in two ways. The first is the manipulative emotionalism of the script. Jones is trying to hard to make us love his characters and feel good about the morally questionable actions they undertake. He keeps telling us - through secondary characters like O'Shea's wife Annie (Flanagan) - how loveable and good-hearted O'Shea and Kelly are, rather than just letting the story show us. He pushes the actors, and especially his two principals, into being a little too cute.
Part of the charm of The Full Monty, for instance, was the edge of anger and pain that gave an authenticity to the characters and built sympathy for their eventual success. In Ned Devine, Bannen, and especially Kelly, are allowed (or encouraged?) to mug a bit too much, to appear a bit too much in the character of that ancient cliche the "lovable Irish rogue."
The dialogue is clever and lively, but occasionally sounds hollow and formulaic, especially when Jones is reaching for a higher level of cuteness, as in the improbably frustrated romance sub-plot between the village's only young woman, Maggie (Susan Lynch) and the pig farmer, Pig Finn (James Nesbitt). The script would have us believe that these two lovers are kept apart by Finn's inability to rid himself of the smell of pig. It is a patently false device, that undermines the cleverness of other parts of the story.
Complicated with other strands concerning the rivalry between Finn and successful farmer Pat Mulligan (Fintan McKeown) and the paternity of Maggie's illegitimate son Maurice (Robert Hickey), the whole romantic sub-plot is little more than filler, that goes nowhere, but not soon enough. Jones's lack of feature experience is probably to blame here. His career has been in commercials, where the whole plot lasts 30 - 60 seconds. It is not surprising the he doesn't trust a single plot-line to carry an hour-and-a-half film. Given the strength of Kelly's and Bannen's performances, however, he probably should have.
The film is sparingly but lovingly designed. The cozy/claustrophobic tension of life in a small traditional village is evoked by the diminutive size of the sets. Every interior scene that has more than one character in it seems crowded. The image of the enforced intimacy of village life extends the exteriors as well, where the narrow streets barely accommodate two pedestrians abreast. The exterior scenes make the most of rugged and wildly beautiful Irish coast (here doubled by the Isle of Mann), without succumbing more than a few times to gratuitous "beauty shots."
The photography is effective and never flashy. If the interiors were shot on sets, they certainly were designed and filmed to maintain the feel of buildings in which they were ostensibly located. The use of the Isle of Mann location, though, points back to Jones's timidity in trying to let image carry what he was afraid story might not. He chose a preserved historic village in which to shoot, rather than an actual Irish hamlet, because he didn't feel that the actual locations would look good enough.
This unwillingness to let things stand on their own merits, to let the rough edges of reality in, makes this film, that Jones owns he intended as a "fairy-tale," a bit too pat. The manipulative hand of the author is everywhere too evident. Although it will probably not rise to heights of The Full Monty, Waking Ned Devine is a respectable first effort. With practice and support, Jones may develop the comic sense that shines in the film's best moments into a full-length project. Although not a must-see, the film provides an enjoyable and entertaining ninety minutes.
That's my take on it. What's yours?