Published October 1, 1998
Waking Ned Devine, written and directed by Kirk Jones, is a delightfully funny and touching film that, I’m afraid, would not win the approval of Bill Bennett. It is about a crime — a fraud perpetrated on the Irish government by an entire Irish village which thus doubtless reveals its collective lack of character and virtue. But it is a crime towards whose commission all but the most unbendingly moralistic will find themselves in sympathy. Just goes to show you, I suppose, that cinematic, literary or artistic accomplishment rarely obliges us by arranging itself in the form of moral exempla.
It begins with a 60ish couple, Jackie and Annie O’Shea (Ian Bannen and Fionnula Flanagan) in the Irish seacoast village of Tullymore, population 52. Jackie is watching the lottery drawing from Dublin on television one Saturday and he calls out to Annie, seen eating meditatively in the next room, to bring him his apple tart. She says for him to get it himself. He then calls out as each number is drawn that it is his number. By the fourth matching number, Annie comes into the sitting room with her mouth open, carrying his apple tart. Each number matches. At the end Jackie is apparently overcome with emotion as the last number matches too. “Have you won?” says Annie incredulously, watching him tearing up the ticket and smiling.
“No. But I got me apple tart brought in.”
Next morning, however, he finds in the paper that someone in the tiny village has won, and he and his best friend, Michael O’Sullivan (David Kelly) set out to find out who it is. The film is very funny while Jackie and Michael and Annie are trying to guess which of the other inhabitants of the village could be the winner. Jackie buys drinks at the pub and Annie makes meat pies for likely candidates. At last they give a chicken dinner for everyone in the village, “in case the winner was hidden among them.” When one of the guests at the party asks Jackie what he’d do if he came into money, Jackie replies: “I’d take what I needed, Pat, and treat my friends with the rest.”
But no one at the chicken dinner appears to be the winner. “Oh jaypers, the chickens and the whiskey were wasted,” Jackie wails forlornly. Then Annie realizes that one invited guest did not come. In a driving rainstorm in the middle of the night, Jackie goes down to the cottage of Ned Devine (Jimmy Keogh) to take him his chicken dinner — and finds there poor Ned, dead in front of the television set with the winning ticket in his stiffened fingers. The shock of winning has killed him. “Isn’t it a twist of fate, Annie,” says Jackie.
“They say money changes a man, Jackie.”
“There’s no greater change than moving him from life to death!”
From this point on the movie becomes even funnier as Jackie and Michael concoct a scheme to persuade the lottery officials that Michael is Ned Devine, so that the two of them can collect and split the more than six million Irish pounds in the jackpot. Eventually they realize, not without a certain amount of relief to their consciences, that they have to let the whole village in on the scheme, in order to support the fiction that Michael is Ned, and split the pot 51 ways, which still produces a tidy sum per capita. But it is essential for everyone in town to come in on the plan, and there is one holdout. Old Lizzie Quinn (Eileen Dromey) tries to blackmail the rest for £1 million, since she’ll get 10 per cent from the lottery for exposing the fraud. “Lizzie Quinn, the witch. If the village finds out, she’ll burn.”
Meantime there is a subplot involving a thwarted romance between Pig Finn (James Nesbitt) and the comely greetings card poet and single mother, Maggie (Susan Lynch), who loves him but can’t bear the smell of pig on him. “If it weren’t for the pigs I’d marry you tomorrow,” says Maggie wistfully, remaining adamant against his suit even though he is sure that he is the father of her young son, now growing up without a father. These two plots are skillfully woven together and are finally tied up in an unexpected and altogether pleasing way at the end. This is the funniest and the most entertaining picture I have seen this year and one that everyone should see for sheer heart’s ease.