Wake up and smell the blarney


How are things in Glocca Morra? The American critics are lapping up the nouveau-Oirish yarn, Waking Ned Devine, with all the enthusiasm of green-faced, Tricolour-waving participants in New York's St Patrick's Day parade. Now its American distributors are speaking of Oscar nominations for this low-budget comedy, set entirely in Ireland and shot entirely on location on the Isle of Man. And the 70-year-old Irish actor, David Kelly, is shaping up as a likely contender for best supporting actor when the nominations are announced on February 9th.

Written and directed by Kirk Jones, Waking Ned Devine ladles on the blarney in its twee and slender tale of an Irish village, Tullymore, with a population of 52, one of whom wins over £6 million in the National Lottery. When crafty old codger Jackie O'Shea (played by Ian Bannen) reads this news in The Irish Times, he and his close friend, Michael O'Sullivan (David Kelly) seek out the winner's identity with a view to sharing the spoils.

Discovering that the winner is the eponymous Ned Devine, and that he died from the shock of learning that he won, the two friends set up a scheme where O'Sullivan will impersonate Devine to collect the winnings from "the man from Dublin". An even more threadbare subplot involves Maggie (Susan Lynch), a young single mother torn between two prospective husbands, one of them Finn (James Nesbitt), a pig farmer with a personal hygiene problem. "If it wasn't for the pigs, we'd be settled by now," laments Maggie.

The consequences involve the villagers consuming vast amounts of alcohol at all hours of the day and night and saying "mighty" a lot, as in "murder is a mighty word to use at this time of night", while David Kelly gets saddled with a gratuitous extended nude scene which is played for laughs, and Shaun Davey's score lays on the wistful uileann pipes in the background. "I wanted to make a feel good movie in every sense," says writer-director Kirk Jones, "and the combination of a lottery scam and Irish humour certainly promise to do that." One of the film's producers, Glynis Murray, says the film was shot on the Isle of Man because "Kirk had looked in southern Ireland and not managed to find a village with the right geography where you can see the whole village completely contained and not spread out over a wide area." However, the film's other producer, Richard Holmes, says: "We came to the Isle of Man because of the tax breaks. Since we got involved with the island they've started investing in films and we were one of the first productions to benefit. Perhaps more importantly, the village we shot in, Cregneash, doubles perfectly for Tullymore."

Waking Ned Devine opened in the US last week to almost unanimously positive reviews. "Adorable," gushed Jeff Giles in his review in Newsweek. "A surpassingly sweet, funny and picturesque movie," he added. The film is no less than "a dream come true", according to NBC Television critic effrey Lyons, who also found it "an absolute delight . . . one of the year's best films".

Writing in Entertainment Weekly, Lisa Schwarzbaum described it as "a snappy, sunny comedy set in a wee hamlet" and noted how the supporting cast briskly go about their business "without ever succumbing to that widespread movie affliction, Irish Twinkle." She rated it an A-minus. In GQ Lisa Henricksson declared it "the perfect antidote to a lousy day". And Glenn Kenny in Premiere called it "a real rarity - you ought to be first in line to see this".

One US publication which has resisted going with the flow is the bi-monthly Film Comment, whose critic Kathleen Murphy found Waking Ned Devine a real rarity for very different reasons. Dismissing the film as "odious", she wrote: "A rural `Irish' romp filmed on the Isle of Man, featuring a village-full of rib-ricklingly retrograde `Irish' types headed by British Ian Bannen under the direction of an Englishman who cut his teeth on TV commercials, this Gaelic Amos 'n' Andy is contemptibly dumb, `shamrock and blarney' cartooning, the likes of which Dublin-born Swift savaged several hundred years ago."

Waking Ned Devine aspires to the wit and whimsy of the classic Ealing comedies, but delivers only the hoariest of old stage-Irish cliches. Nevertheless, after a keenly fought 24-hour bidding war between distributors at Cannes this year, Fox Searchlight, the specialist films division of 20th Century Fox, paid over $4 million for the US rights to this low-budget film - which cost just $5 million - in the hope of repeating their box-office success last year with The Full Monty, another upbeat, low-budget comedy in which some unlikely male physical types disrobe for the camera Having astonished the film industry by promoting The Full Monty all the way to an Oscar nomination for best picture earlier this year, Fox Searchlight are now aiming at Oscar nominations for Waking Ned Devine. The campaign is already underway in this week's edition of the leading Hollywood trade paper, Variety, with an advertisement promoting Waking Ned Devine in no less than 11 Oscar categories, including best picture, actor (Ian Bannen), supporting actor (David Kelly), supporting actress (Fionnuala Flanagan) and original musical or comedy score (Shaun Davey).

The most immediate step in the campaign, however, will be securing nominations in the Golden Globe awards, presented annually by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which will be announced on December 17th, and crucially for this film, separates film drama from comedies and musicals in the key categories.

"The Golden Globes are usually a good Oscar belwether," Lindsay Law, president of Fox Searchlight told the Boston Globe last weekend. "We think Waking Ned Devine will be among the best comedy/musical nominees, and that should give us additional Oscar momentum."

What Irish audiences will think of the movie is another matter entirely. It will be released here and in Britain under the truncated title of Waking Ned, on March 19th - perfectly positioned two days after St Patrick's Day, and two days before the Oscar awards ceremony in Los Angeles.