The carefully engineered pre-publicity for the Irish character comedy Waking Ned Devine has brought Kirk Jones, its English writer-director to Seattle nearly two months before the opening. Clearly, the powers at Fox Searchlight who steered The Full Monty, an English comedy with an arcane name, to its fullest, booty-shaking triumph, are clearing the way for Ned like sweepers in a curling match, with a combination of diligence and frenzy.
Waking Ned Devine
written and directed by Kirk Jones
starring Ian Bannen and David Kelly, Susan Lynch
starts this Friday at Seven Gables
Monty came with a cute, fold-out glossary of English slang. I've got mine still, in case I forget that a bog is a lavatory, or that a punter is "a prostitute's client." Waking Ned Devine has its unforgettable central image: mosquito-sized, 67-year-old David Kelly, buckaroo-naked except for shoes, socks, and goggles, careening through the "Irish" countryside (actually, it's the Isle of Man) on a motorcycle. At last look, Kelly was second only to Santa in the geezer hall of holiday icons.
Setting featherweight Kelly on that hog was a pretty indelible moment for 33-year-old Jones, making his first feature after eight years of "eccentric, character-driven" commercials.
The director was faced with the delicate task of asking the veteran Kelly to do his own full-monty moment. "We designed a flesh-colored stocking but the camera kept seeing it," Jones recalls. The actor agreed, almost cheerfully, to do the scenes au naturel.
"He was far more worried about the motorbike," explains the director. "For the close-ups, it was on a hydraulic system. It leaned out [setting down his teacup, Jones demonstrates an extreme angle], then it came back up. David didn't realize this when he set off, so a lot of the shots of him going off on the bike are genuine fear. He was terrified he was going to come off." (The keen-eyed may spot a body double in one shot from the back.)
The film lives or dies in its central pair of characters, Michael O'Sullivan (Kelly), a faintly more principled sidekick to the expansive Jackie O'Shea (Ian Bannen). "From a comic point of view," the director says, "they're a sort of Laurel and Hardy.
"I knew David Kelly from his '70s TV work in series like Fawlty Towers, as the Irish builder, O'Reilly. I suspect at that time he got typed as a TV actor and never got the chance on the big screen. Then, I saw him in A Man of No Importance with Albert Finney, a tiny scene but so vivid, and as far as I could see, he was absolutely perfect for Michael."
Bannen, whose profile was higher (from The Flight of the Phoenix and The Hill to the irascible father in Hope and Glory), also struck Jones as a shoo-in. "I suspect what attracted me to Ian Bannen was the same twinkle [he has] in his eye as my grandfather. Like Jackie, my grandfather always had motorbikes when he was younger; he never drove a car. I used to spend a lot of time with him at his pub and I got to listen to his stories: the time when he had a puncture and no inner tube, so he had to stuff the inner tube with grass so he could get back to Bristol. I suspect a lot of [the movie's] scenes were inspired by him."
The fretful Michael, Jackie, and Jackie's wife, Annie, hatch an elaborate scheme around Ned Devine's winning lottery ticket in the winsome village of Tully More, pop. 52. Oops—51. The shock of winning has claimed Ned. From this point on, the entire village is in on the con.
Ask the writer-director about the splendid comedies of Scotsman Alexander Mac-Kendrick (The Man in the White Suit, The Ladykillers, Tight Little Island) and he brightens.
"Whiskey Galore, which you know as Tight Little Island, is definitely a relation of this film," he says. "I was very aware of it, as I was of Local Hero, very. When you look at Ned Devine I don't think you could say I'd ripped those films off, but I've kind of been inspired through the ages by those two films in particular. I was also inspired by the Ealing films of the '50s [Passport to Pimlico, Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Lavender Hill Mob]."
"Someone had spent time working on these stories, they made sense, they had beginnings, middles, and ends—the ends were great because everything was tied up. Whereas nowadays when I go to the cinema, I just don't know where a film is going; they seem to go all over the place. When I sit down, I said, I'm going to at least put together a story which has some sort of structure."
Jones' affection for tight little stories and twinkling little villagers glints all the way through Waking Ned Devine, and he's been generous with his casting. Looking closely you can find Fionnula Flanagan, James Joyce interpreter without parallel, as Annie, and Susan Lynch as Tully More's stunning single mother. (Some of us will never forget Lynch's sea transformation from woman to "selkie," the seal-like creature of The Secret of Roan Inish, done more by acting than effects.)
Yet to hope, as Fox Searchlight clearly does, that Ned is another Monty is to misread them both. In far too many places, Ned tips its hand: It's written to be like those nifty little films of '40s and '50s, full of quaint characters and outrageous moments. The Full Monty was peopled by fully fleshed-out characters, man, woman, and child, and there was something at stake in their desperation. Greed moves Ned Devine; its humanity is tinny, and its grab bag of characters—the Pig Man who can't get the girl for all the raspberry soap in Tully More, the too-wise child who has soothing conversations with the new priest in town—are infinitely forgettable.
Mercifully, Jones has a light directing hand, and his ensemble, seemingly unaware that their project is imitation ersatz, at least don't belabor things. But classic? Please.