The late Spike Milligan's first novel, published in 1963, finally comes to the screen in a good-natured attempt at capturing the distinctive scatological humor and wayward wordplay of the much-loved and admired ex-Goon. Though Terence Ryan's affectionate pic deserves an A for effort, Milligan's humor is probably unfilmable.

The late Spike Milligan’s first novel, published in 1963, finally comes to the screen in a good-natured attempt at capturing the distinctive scatological humor and wayward wordplay of the much-loved and admired ex-Goon. Though Terence Ryan’s affectionate pic deserves an A for effort, Milligan’s humor is probably unfilmable, better suited to the printed page or (as he proved with “The Goon Show”) to radio. Lovers of the cult book no doubt will be intrigued to see how the film shapes up, and, with the right push, pic could attract audiences looking for off-the-wall comedy. But ancillary looks to be a better bet than theatrical.

In the first chapter of the book, the central character, an eccentric called Dan Milligan (mysteriously renamed “Dan Madigan” for the film) complains to the novel’s author about the legs he’s been given (“Did you write these legs? I could ha’ writted better legs meself.”) When this dialogue appears on film, with Madigan (Sean Hughes) addressing his complaints to the film’s writer-director (played in black-and-white bookend scenes by Richard Attenborough), the mad humor doesn’t quite work.

Still, there’s a lot to enjoy in this tall tale, set in 1924 when the border between the Irish Free State and Ulster (Northern Ireland) was drawn up. The village of Puckoon is divided in two, a bizarre situation that provides the film with most of its momentum. One section of the local pub is in the north (where the drinks are cheaper) and the rest of it is in the south, a concept that’s typical of Milligan’s sense of the absurd.

Much of the action revolves around the cemetery, which is on the grounds of the Catholic church. The border cuts off the graves from the church itself and, to make matters worse, a customs post manned by armed British soldiers is established on the spot. Upset that the deceased members of his flock are forced to acquire British passports in order to be laid to rest, the local priest, Father Rudden (Daragh O’Malley) conspires to have the bodies exhumed and reinterred on the Irish side of the border, unaware that inefficient IRA members (Conor Mullen, Frankie McCafferty) have been using coffins to smuggle explosives into Ulster.

The humor is as broad as it is scatological, and a large cast of character actors serves up more Irish blarney than the screen has seen since the heyday of John Ford and Barry Fitzgerald. Among the more prominent members of the cast are David Kelly as the local publican, Milo O’Shea as a constable and Freddie Jones as the befuddled chairman of the Boundary Commissioners. Elliott Gould has only a minor role as a Jewish doctor who supports the Catholics, but he fits comfortably into the ensemble.

The film hits its stride with a farcical finale in which the IRA men are forced to disguise themselves as Boy Scouts and take part in a boys’ production of “Julius Caesar,” with chaotic results.

Though clearly made on a budget, “Puckoon” is brightly packaged with crisp camerawork by Peter Hannan, pleasing production design by John Bunker and jaunty music by Richard Hartley and Pol Brennan. At a tight 82 minutes, pic hardly has time to overstay its welcome.

Puckoon

Market / U.K.-Ireland

Production

An MPB Prods., Y2K Film Prods., Insight Ventures (U.K.)/Distinguished Features (Ireland) co-production, with the support of Irish Film Board, National Lottery, Northern Ireland Film Commission. (International sales: Beyond Films, Sydney.) Produced by Ken Tuohy, Terence Ryan. Co-producer, David McLoughlin. Executive producers, Rainer Mockert, Brooks Riley. Co-executive producers, Kevin Menton, Stephen Margolis, Jamie Brown. Directed, written by Terence Ryan, based on the novel by Spike Milligan.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor), Peter Hannan; editor, Dermot Diskin; music, Richard Hartley, Pol Brennan; production designer, John Bunker; art director, Gillian Devenny; costume designer, Hazel Webb-Crozier; sound (Dolby Digital), Andre Jacquemin; special effects, Dominic Tuohy; line producer, Ken Tuohy; assistant director, Neil Tuohy; casting, Jo Gilbert. Reviewed on videocassette, Leura, Australia, June 7, 2002. (In Cannes Film Festival -- market.) Running time: 82 MIN.

With

Dan Madigan - Sean Hughes Dr. Goldstein - Elliott Gould Father Rudden - Daragh O'Malley O'Brien - John Lynch Col. Stokes - Griff Rhys Jones Foggerty - Nickolas Grace Rafferty - B.J. Hogg O'Toole - David Kelly Sgt. McGillikuddie - Milo O'Shea Sir John Meredith - Freddie Jones Alex Walker - Richard Rickings Writer-Director - Richard Attenborough
With: Conor Mullen, Frankie McCafferty, Ronnie Drew, John Kavanagh, Joe McGann, Aine Ni Mhuiri, Christopher Jupe, Peter Woodward, Paddy Scully, John Michie, Paul Loughran.
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