The Irish film Evelyn takes its story from one of those stranger-than-fiction legal Catch-22s. In Ireland of the 1950s, fathers could not have sole custody of their children without the consent of the mothers. When jobless Desmond Doyle saw his wife flee to Australia without any subsequent contact, he lost his daughter and two sons to the state, with no grounds for challenging the law.
Evelyn provides a surprisingly light dramatization of Doyle's actual court cases. Though Evelyn could have been a major downer, the film leans closer to the twinkly, cartoonish kind of Irish movie like Waking Ned Devine and not the miserable, squalid variety like Angela's Ashes.
Pierce Brosnan plays Doyle, a painter, decorator and occasional pub singer who's unemployed at the film's outset. Irish himself, Brosnan clearly relishes the change of pace from playing such cool customers as James Bond and Thomas Crown. Still, he's only a karaoke-caliber crooner and his working-class accent's a little rusty, making exclamations like "Jaysus!" and "Eejit!" sound phony.
When his wife runs off, he seeks financial assistance from the state, which deems him a poor provider and packs off his daughter Evelyn (Sophie Vavasseur) and his two indistinguishable boys to state-run orphanages. Doyle improves himself with the help of his kindly da (Frank Kelly) and a comely barmaid (Julianna Margulies), but even when he gets a job and quits quaffing Guinness, the government won't give his children back without the consent of his MIA wife.
Evelyn gets consigned to a convent that isn't so bad by cinematic standards, being spacious and clean, with at least one supportive nun. Trouble comes from villainous Sister Brigid (Andrea Irvine), who straps children if they don't know catechisms and forbids them from sleeping on their stomachs because "it tempts the devil." Vavasseur has one of those world-wise little-girl faces that makes a fine canvas for Evelyn's moments of happiness and grief.
To get his children back, Doyle must essentially challenge the authority of both church and state, and he gradually enlists in his cause a fatalistic solicitor (Stephen Rea), a more optimistic Irish-American barrister (Aidan Quinn) and an ex-footballer turned legal lion (Alan Bates). Doyle's team knows their movie cliches even more than they know legal precedent, evoking David and Goliath as well as St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes. But Bates plays his role as if the notion of a drunken Irishman is his own personal discovery and not an ancient stereotype.
Director Bruce Beresford proves competent enough that we get caught up in the climactic courtroom scenes. But how could we not, with the witness box featuring dutiful Doyle, brutal Sister Brigid and innocent Evelyn herself? The film's best gag has Bates' character guessing which way the judges will rule by counting the "howevers" in their final statements.
Evelyn achieves an almost unnerving level of sentiment. Paul Pender's screenplay makes recurring references to "angel rays," which the girl's grandfather explains are the sunbeams sent out by guardian angels. Whenever the angel rays come up in conversation -- which is far more often than they should -- the film's sunlight is shot with a glossy sheen suitable for a Hallmark card, and there's even a song about the angel rays on the closing credits. Beresford presents the idea with such a heavy hand that Evelyn makes the PAX Network's family-friendly shows look like programming for the WWF.
The film also takes great pains to be pro-religious even as it criticizes the Catholic church, as if trying to pre-empt possible protests. Nativity scenes feature in the first and last scenes, and one of Evelyn's early lines is that Jesus had two daddies, God and Joseph. Evelyn may satisfy families seeking a wholesome holiday diversion, but you might want to bring sunglasses for protection from those angel rays.