Evelyn
review by Dan Lybarger, 20  December 2002

On a first viewing, I found Bruce Beresford's new movie Evelyn to be too cloying and syrupy for its own good. But for some strange reason, the next day I wanted to show it to friends and relatives and get their reaction. Now that I've caught it again, the film's virtues outweigh its missteps. The humor seems less forced, and the beauty of the core story tramples the moments where the Irish-set drama sinks into blarney.  Working from a fascinating and historically important 1953 Irish legal case, Scottish screenwriter and producer Paul Pender deserves credit for simply introducing the story to the rest of the world.

During that event, an unemployed housepainter and part-time singer named Desmond Doyle (Pierce Brosnan) suffered a double calamity. His wife, weary of their crumbling marriage, abandons him for an Englishman and heads to Australia without leaving anyone a forwarding address. Because of her abrupt departure and his financial woes ("Santa was strapped for cash this year," he tells his offspring), Desmond has little choice but to give his children over to Catholic Church-sponsored orphanages. As far as the Irish government is concerned, Desmond's luck and his habits -- like cursing and consuming Guinness -- make him an unfit parent.

Gradually, Desmond gets a job restoring a grand old home and wants to bring his daughter Evelyn (Sophie Vavasseur) and sons Dermot (Niall Began) and Maurice (Hugh McDonagh) home. The government and the Church remain unmoved, and there's an obscure 1941 law that requires him to obtain the consent of the mother to take custody. With his spouse living incommunicado in Sydney, that's not going to happen. As far as the law is concerned, it would have been so much easier if she had died. Desmond even tries rescuing his tots from the orphanages, but it's all for naught. Even if one of the sisters feels to the need to beat God's love into the Evelyn, Desmond's love is little match for the local child welfare system. Thanks to an intelligent barmaid named Bernadette Beattie (Julianna Margulies), Desmond gradually quits the chemical recreation and recruits her brother Michael (Stephen Rea) to act as his solicitor. He and Desmond's unceasing determination eventually gain support from a hotshot Irish-American barrister (Aidan Quinn) and a retired lawyer-soccer player (Alan Bates from Gosford Park), who uses his celebrity status to help argue Desmond's case on a new medium called television.

Because of the omnipresence of television these days, it's actually fascinating to watch Desmond and others trying to comprehend this new contraption. It might have been even more effective if screenwriter Pender had cut the stale wisecrack about TV never lasting.

Eventually, the Irish Supreme Court has little choice but to review the case and possibly declare the law unconstitutional. There's something inherently moving about a responsible caring father fighting to regain custody of his children. In some ways, Brosnan's previous turns as James Bond offhandedly work in his favor. Whereas 007 would do anything in his power to deny paternity, Desmond longs for it, so it's almost like Bond has shaped up. It's a rare treat to hear Brosnan speak with his native accent (he was born in County Meath), and apparently he's a ringer for the real Desmond Doyle.

The rest of the film could have used that sort of authenticity. Every now and then artificial "sunlight" will glow, and one of the characters grins because the "angel rays" are shining. With treacly bits like this, the film's charm begins to erode. Had Beresford and Pender chosen to tell the story in a more detached manner, it might have been more involving because the two gradually bludgeon the audience with sentimentality. Thankfully, the supporting cast is more than solid, and, like a lot of other Irish movies, Evelyn is visually gorgeous.

Having been raised a German-American Protestant, I'm also curious about the way Evelyn treats the Catholic Church. The film features an almost cartoonish nun (Andrea Irvine) who abuses the children in the name of the Lord. I wondered how realistic this depiction of Irish Catholicism was. There may have been nuns that fanatical running the orphanages, but with all the scorn the Church has faced lately, the last thing they need is unfair stereotypes. Fortunately, many of the clergy depicted in the film eagerly help out Desmond Doyle and his children. Still, as I watched the movie, I couldn't help but think about how politicians and religious leaders are spouting all sorts of platitudes about family. It's sadly ironic that these same two groups can be unwittingly harmful to the institution they praise.

Directed by:
Bruce Beresford

Starring:
Pierce Brosnan
Julianna Margulies
Aidan Quinn
Stephen Rea
Alan Bates
Sophie Vavasseur
Niall Began
Hugh McDonagh

Written by:
Paul Pender

Rated:
PG - Parental
Guidance Suggested.
Some material may
not be appropriate for
children.

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