WAKING NED DEVINE Is an Underrated Heist Movie

Waking Ned Devine is an undeniably delightful comedy. Set along the Irish coast in the fictional village of Tullymore, at the outset it looks like a fun buddy comedy about a pair of aging friends who spend their time playing the lottery, paling around at their local pub, and going for joyrides on a little motorbike. But there’s one very important caveat: the 1998 film is a actually heist movie. 

In a way it’s a very understated heist film. There are no weapons and certainly no breaking into bank vaults in the dead of night. In fact, nobody travels beyond the outskirts of the fictional village of Tullymore. (Besides, of course, an unassuming lottery man coming in from Dublin to scope out the claim of a winning lottery ticket.) However, at its core it’s a film about two men pulling off a scheme to defraud the Irish National Lottery to the tune of seven million pounds. 

A group of people toast atop a cliff in Waking Ned Devine

Fox Searchlight Pictures

Things start out innocent enough. Lottery enthusiast Jackie O’Shea (Ian Bannen) stumbles into the news that an undisclosed resident in their village of 52 people has the winning lottery ticket. Along with his wife Annie (Finnoula Flanagan) and best friend Michael O’Sullivan (David Kelly), Jackie sets out to find and befriend the lottery winner in the hopes of scoring a small payout. That is, however, until they discover the winner Ned Devine dead, lottery ticket in hand. But after processing the slight hiccup in their ploy to snag a little cut of the lottery winnings, Jackie, ever the opportunist, revises the plan. Under the impression the prize is a cool £500,000, he decides to claim the winnings while impersonating their late pal. Plus, Ned gave him the go-ahead in a dream, so he’s feeling pretty good about this whole plan.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of this movie is watching the men—Annie, a reasonable person, is out—plot their con. Jackie, has all the bravado of Henry Gondorff for someone who’s clearly never committed a crime. And Michael, his more subdued widower friend, has allegedly never told a lie in his life. Things further take a turn when the lottery man, on his way to meet “Ned,” intercepts Jackie, forcing the aforementioned Michael “has never lied in his life” O’Sullivan to take on the role of chief identity thief.

Elderly men ride a motorbike in Waking Ned Devine

Fox Searchlight Pictures

The heist itself plays out in two parts. First is the part Jackie and Michael have planned for, answering the routine questions and signing for the check. But things are complicated when the lotto man deems Ned the sole winner of seven million pounds! A jackpot that comes with some additional questions and paperwork. Defrauding the lottery system of a half million is not legal by any means; but stealing seven million is the big leagues. 

Interspersed between Jackie and Michael’s on-the-fly schemes are various subplots featuring the Tullymore locals, most notablyFinn (James Nesbitt) the pig farmer pining for Maggie O’Toole (Susan Lynch), who specifically won’t marry him due to the pigs. The Tullymore locals don’t add a bit of context to the quiet countryside life. First they serve as lottery winning suspects. Then they play a crucial role in seeing this little bit of fraud through.

From Bonnie and Clyde to my beloved Ocean’s movies, the heist movie is a wonderfully varied genre. They can be gritty noirs or people committing crimes while generally having a good time. ( Steven Soderbergh is especially adept at the latter.) But most heist movies have three things in common: there’s the mark, the spoil, and the payout. Naturally, Ned Devine also features all three. This film’s spoil comes in the form of the crotchety old Lizzy Quinn, a Tullymore resident and adversary to all others. 

A crowded pub cheers in Waking Ned Devine

Fox Searchlight Pictures

With the threat of the lotto man making inquiries about Ned in town, Jackie decides to loop the rest of Tullymore in on the scheme. The lone holdout is Lizzy, naturally, ready to jump at the chance to send her neighbors to prison or walk away with a million. However, this is a silly heist movie—it’s full of upbeat Irish music! How unsatisfying it would be—for most, that is—to see Jackie and his 50 co-conspirators paraded out of Tullymore. The schemers prevail and pints flow wildly.

Maybe Waking Ned Devine isn’t a heist movie in the most traditional sense. The citizens of Tullymore are not career criminals, as heist movie leads often are. They succeed with relative ease after overcoming a few non-lethal obstacles. Their foil is eliminated more or less by accident. (I’d be remiss to not note that Lizzy’s “ comeuppance” is a rather jarring note in an otherwise joyful movie.) But it’s a very fun tale of opportunity knocking, and a very conniving Irishman answering the call.

Waking Ned Devine is currently streaming on Hulu.

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