Waking Ned Devine is a Winner

Ian Bannen, David Kelly, Fionnula Flanagan, Susan Lynch, James Nesbitt. Directed by Kirk Jones. Aspect ratio: 2.35:1 (widescreen). Dolby Digital 2.0. 91 minutes. 1998. 20th Century Fox 4110285. PG. $24.95.

Waking Ned Devine is the sort of small, character-driven comedy that Americans don't seem to make anymore. Maybe they've always been in short supply—even the UK manages to make only one or two each year. WND was last summer's offering, and it's a good 'un.

Set in the Irish village of Tulaigh Mohr, population 42, WND tells the tale of Ned Devine's lottery winnings. Devine, who died of shock on discovering he held the winning lottery ticket, is found by two of Tulaigh Mohr's aging reprobates (Ian Bannen and David Kelly), who determine to impersonate Devine and cash in his ticket. When they learn that the lottery board will send out a representative to confirm that the fake Devine is who he says he is, they decide to split the ill-gotten gains 42 ways to ensure that everyone goes along with their scheme. But there's always a troublemaker, isn't there?

Not much of a plot, really, but the film doesn't miss it for an instant. The cast is uniformly marvelous, but first among equals are Bannen's Michael and Kelly's Jackie—lifelong friends who are still full of piss'n'vinegar in their 60s. Bannen offers a heartfelt eulogy for Ned—er, Jackie—no, it's really Ned—that brings to mind the eulogy scene in Four Weddings and a Funeral; they share the same movie-halting emotional intensity. Kelly's entire performance is noteworthy, from his twitchy realization that his prank has condemned the villagers to a world of trouble, to his naked motorcycle dash down the back roads.

Another of the film's charms is its setting, with the Isle of Man filling in for rural Ireland. The landscape is almost achingly beautiful, and goes a long way toward explaining why the entire population of Tulaigh Mohr is in no danger of bolting the instant the lottery check is cashed. Who'd ever move from such a paradise?

That beauty is captured wonderfully in the film, which has marvelous contrast and color saturation. This isn't a Technicolor extravaganza—the palette is muted by mist and a weak sun, but the colors are rich and true. The soundtrack is a great match for the visuals—the score captures the film's wild exuberance and good cheer and, while the surround effects are minimal, the tracking is good, if somewhat on the centered side of enveloping.

It is the balance of all of its charms that makes Waking Ned Devine work so well. The acting is believable and the plot is as comfortable as an old shoe. All told, it's a beautiful thing.