Any time you're making a schmaltzy feel-good flick, Judge Diane Wild recommends hiring a Bond actor for the lead role. Their experience with explosives and hand-to-hand combat have to be good for a touching moment or two.
The story of a father's love that changed a nation.
With the above tagline and the words "Based on a True Story" appearing before the opening scenes, Evelyn set off my schmaltz detector even before the first shot of the eponymous Adorable Little Waif. But this sweet, straightforward story has enough Irish charm to overcome the occasional blarney.
Facts of the Case
It's 1950s Dublin, and Desmond Doyle's wife has just walked out on him and their three young children, never to be heard from again. But the real drama starts when government social workers step in and send the children to orphanages until barely employed Desmond (Pierce Brosnan) can take care of them.
To scrape out a living, Desmond starts singing in pubs with his fiddler father, and takes on every painting and decorating job he can find. Believing his improved financial situation will allow him to regain custody, he is shocked to learn that without his vanished wife's consent, the government will not allow him to raise his children alone.
With the help of a sassy barmaid and a motley team of lawyers, he begins a desperate legal fight against Church and State to bring his family back together. It's a David-and-Goliath battle, but as Desmond points out, "David beat Goliath in the book I read."
Director Bruce Beresford (Driving Miss Daisy) tells a linear story unadorned with irony or stylistic flourishes. We know going in what the outcome of the case will be, and yet Desmond's efforts to have his day in court, and the road to the final judgment, are peppered with enough suspense to keep the momentum going.
Brosnan brings some baggage to the role of Desmond Doyle. You might remember him from a little series of movies he did about a secret agent, but here he leaves the movie star persona behind to become an ordinary man who changed Irish law and became a hero to many.
Desmond is a disheveled drunk who happens to love his children fiercely. The two boys barely surface in the film, but scenes of eldest child Evelyn's treatment in the orphanage alternate with the story of Desmond's efforts to get her out. Evelyn (Sophie Vavasseur) is mistreated by a tyrannical nun and soothed by a kind one, but there is no real exploration of the abuses suffered in these Church-run institutions. The storyline is flattened to allow for few digressions beyond the legal battle.
Even the developing relationship of Desmond and barmaid Bernadette (Julianna Margulies, ER) is barely a subplot. She introduces him to her brother Michael (Stephen Rea, The Musketeer), a solicitor, and friend Nick (Aidan Quinn, Blink), a barrister who is also smitten with her. The rivalry between Desmond and Nick for her affections is a little too amiable, but then the only relationship given any air is the one between Desmond and Evelyn, and some emotional connection is sacrificed because of this.
Bernadette helps Desmond quit drinking and concentrate on getting his children back, and she's an appealing presence throughout, but her role is limited. So are those of Desmond's legal team, which is rounded out by Alan Bates as an ex-football player and retired lawyer who specialized in "St. Jude cases"—he being the patron saint of hopeless causes.
Despite the seeming righteousness of Desmond's crusade, they are warned that they will not be allowed to win, because his victory would cause a fundamental change to Irish family law. And "the law and justice are two entirely different things," as Michael warns.
The drama is punctuated with moments of cornball humor ("I'm not drinking and driving; I drank before I drove") and wit. When a despairing Desmond gets into a bar fight with a priest (and loses), the apologetic priest explains he was boxing champion at his seminary: "never underestimate the strength of the church militant."
It also revels in pure sappiness, such as when Evelyn's grandfather tells her that sunbeams are "angel rays," guardian angels looking over her. After the grandfather's death, Beresford calls on these sunbeams a couple of times to bring a tear to less cynical eyes. But the story marches on, and such cloying moments pass quickly.
Evelyn makes sure to show that Desmond's case had a broader importance. We are introduced to a sympathetic bookie who helps fund the Doyle cause because he grew up in an orphanage himself. "I wish my dad had your guts," he tells Desmond. And a scene with Evelyn's fellow "orphans" shows how much they have at stake in the verdict too.
Presented in anamorphic widescreen, Evelyn suffers from some occasional graininess but is generally a solid transfer. The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound isn't really tested by the dialogue and pub singing (performed by Brosnan himself), but both are crystal clear.
This special edition comes with an impressive number of features, though "The Story Behind the Story" Featurette doesn't really live up to its title. It starts with writer Paul Pender's account of meeting the real-life Evelyn, who crusaded to get her father's story told, but the only other tidbit of information we get about the real family is that Brosnan apparently resembles old photos of Desmond Doyle.
There are two commentaries…sort of. Beresford is alone on one, and has little of interest to say. In fact, he has little to say at all and it's easy to forget you're watching the film with commentary on. Far better is the commentary with Brosnan and his producing partner Beau St. Clair. It covers a lot of the same ground as the featurettes, but Brosnan offers some insight into getting the movie made, his own Catholic school days, and what making this small, personal film meant to his career in the middle of his Bond run.
A throwback to the days of pure storytelling, Evelyn would not be out of place in 1940s Hollywood. Yet the central question—what constitutes a family, and who gets to decide—resonates today, and the heartfelt performances and compelling story make for decent, family-friendly fare.
Justice for the Doyles at last—Evelyn is acquitted of all charges.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary with director Bruce Beresford
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