WAKING NED DEVINEPG
There's far too much ludicrous, old-man nudity in Waking Ned Devine to take it completely seriously as belonging to an Irish folk tradition. But there's still plenty of fun blarney in this tale of weak and poor country people pulling the wool over the eyes of the Irish national lottery-it's even present in the film's prankish score, which has a conniving but funny way of giving us false cues. Considering that luck, death, roguery and drinking figure prominently in the film, there are enough Irish traits in it to keep one fondly if suspiciously remembering the last travel poster one saw featuring lasses and green hills, or to lead one to swear trying Finnegans Wake one more time.
Jackie (Ian Bannen), retired and married to Lizzie (Fionnula Flanagan), wiles away his evening hours watching the lottery drawing on TV. There really isn't a lot better to do in Tulaigh Morh, a hamlet of 52 tucked away in a remote corner by the Irish Sea, and consisting mainly of older people. Since the death of his wife, Michael (David Kelly), Jackie's best friend, has been practically an extended family member of the household. But that kind of fellowship typifies the closeness of the ties within the community: In this former fishing village, custom and harsh circumstances have taught these hangers-on to pull together. The opposite side of the coin, of course, is that everybody has their noses in everybody else's business.
One day, Jackie reads a curious notice in an out-of-town newspaper: Someone or another from their area has won the jackpot. Knowing that his fellow townspeople probably aren't up on this news, he contacts Michael about it, and the two figure they should put their heads together to find out the winner, and make a beeline to his or her generosity, before everyone else is forming a queue. They ply some of their very best friends with meals and whiskey. Finally discovering the ticket under strange circumstances, Jackie and Michael realize that they can either try to pull off a greedy scam, all to the benefit of themselves-or else try a more realistic con that will require the help of every person in the community.
Kirk Jones, in his directorial debut, has a field day in unspinning this yarn, prolonging our suspense at times for the sake of working in a comic moment, but without annoying our patience, or underestimating our ability to determine what might happen next. Even if we knew the entire plot going into Devine, it wouldn't matter much, as the film connects to so many popular fables about avarice, daft luck, peasants vs. the empowered, and the fuzzy distinction between death and bounty. But the Irish have probably been coddled enough in cute fairy tales around the world, and Jones pointedly doesn't let this film slip into fantasy lighting or don children's-books compositions. Instead, he posits a very strong sense of place, of people grounded in a tangible, particular piece of land (the film was shot on the Isle of Man). He guides the scene-to-scene pace briskly, his lighting is clear-eyed, and the Cinemascope shots well render grizzled faces beside the homes they've belonged to for years.
Jones' heart, too, is in a practical place: There's no bemoaning the loss of tradition by the potential influx of wealth here. Duping the government, mercifully, isn't even called into question. These people have been poor all their lives, and they are damn sure going to grab onto their best chance ever to crawl out of their straits. The director also saves us the trouble of keeping track of all 52 citizens: We only get to know about a dozen, but feel like we have sampled the congregation adequately. Bannen's and Kelly's embarrassing nude scenes aside, Jones has told a contemporary folk tale capably and amusingly.