WAKING NED DEVINE (1998)

  • Director: Kirk Jones
  • Writer: Kirk Jones
  • Starring: Ian Bannen, David Kelly, Fionnula Flanagan, Susan Lynch, James Nesbitt, Adrian Robinson, and Eileen Dromey
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on Hulu, buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

The winner of our reader vote for our St. Patrick’s Day feature and the closing movie of our Irish Virtual Film Festival is Waking Ned Devine (or just Waking Ned, as it was billed everywhere but North America, which is interesting but I don’t have an explanation for), the first feature film of writer/director Kirk Jones. It is set in the impossibly bucolic rural Irish village of Tullymore, population 52, though it was actually shot on the Isle of Man. I don’t want to be one of those people, extremely common in some corners of the internet, who judges movies on what they either wanted them to be or thought they were going to be before watching it. But I would say that I was expecting a somewhat more madcap movie, based on all descriptions. I found the hijinks I was expecting to be somewhat subdued, though pleasant all around. I say this about a movie that has a naked old guy riding down an Irish country lane on a motorcycle while aggressive “Trad” music plays. But there it is. I think I wanted an Irish Raising Arizona and what I got was more of an Irish The Full Monty or Calendar Girls, if that makes sense.

Waking Ned Devine’s heroes are two elderly men in the village, Jackie and Michael, played by Ian Bannen and David Kelly. They figure out that someone in the village won the Irish National Lottery, and start poking around to find out who it is, at first out of nothing more than curiosity. Then they figure out that the winner was, in fact, another older man named Ned Devine (Jimmy Keogh), whose dead body they happen upon in his house. Jackie soon determines that Ned died of shock from winning, and after he says Ned visits him in a dream, decides that what Ned would want is for him and Michael to pretend that Ned is still alive and claim the money. A wrench is thrown in their plan when a lottery worker (Adrian Robinson) appears to investigate Ned’s win, and Michael has to pretend to be Ned. “Michael’s never told a lie in his life!” comments Jackie’s wife Annie (Fionnula Flanagan). “Well, he’s making up for it now,” Jackie replies.

Flanagan has become a great Irish institution, and was likely by far the best known member of this cast when the movie came out, though she isn’t given that much to do. Today’s audiences will likely recognize James Nesbitt, in his first major movie role as “Pig” Finn. Finn is in love with local girl Maggie (Susan Lynch), but she refuses to marry him because he smells like the pigs on his farm all the time. Perhaps if Finn were to somehow come into a great deal of money, this problem could be solved. Nesbitt has gone on to a successful career that’s included the Paul Greengrass Troubles-themed drama Bloody Sunday, playing the title character in Steven Moffatt’s Jekyll, and playing Bofur the Dwarf in Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy.

Writer/director Kirk Jones had previously worked primarily in commercials, and impressed investors with a ten minute short film version of the story in order to get financing. Those investors were smart, because Waking Ned Devine became a surprise major international hit.  In fact, it finished second in 1999 (having opened on Christmas Day 1998) in the category of world box office take as a percentage of original budget, behind The Blair Witch Project. Jones’ subsequent work, including Nanny McPhee, What to Expect When You’re Expecting, and My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2, has not reached the same level of acclaim or success.

Though this movie’s characters find themselves worrying that they’re in over their heads and might go to jail, there is never any real question that this will happen, even when the local mean lady (Eileen Dromey) attempts to speed to the local phone booth in her motorized wheelchair to report them. This is a “sweet” movie, not a thriller. In one key scene, the lottery worker suddenly appears in the village church while Jackie is in the middle of giving Ned’s eulogy. Rather than either the tension or the broad comedy another movie might draw from this situation, Jackie spins into giving a eulogy for his friend Michael, noting “wouldn’t it be grand to see your own funeral?” and commenting on how he always wanted to tell Michael what a good friend he was. We see tears well in Michael’s eyes. There is not an arc leading up to this about how Michael doesn’t know how much of a friend Jackie considers him, or them having trouble expressing their feelings to each other, or anything like that. This is just a movie where people are nice to each other.

Critic Derek Elley, writing for Variety, hit the nail on the head in my opinion when he wrote, “it’s not laugh-out-loud material but time spent with a group of oddballs for whom normalcy is just one option in life.”  There has been a string of these kinds of movies out of the British Isles over the decades, with an ambience that somehow can’t quite be re-created in stories about small town America. The characters just sort of have to be themselves, while stepping ever so slightly outside their comfort zone, and you have a comedy and, if you’re lucky, a crossover hit. Even if Waking Ned Devine wasn’t exactly what I was in the mood for, it’s a fun movie, and it’s hard to think of a better send-off for our 2021 Irish Virtual Film Festival than the movie’s final scene. Our main characters raise a toast to Ned on a sweeping, green cliff-top, while the chorus of “The Parting Glass” soars on the soundtrack. Happy St. Patrick’s Day, everyone.

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