In 1953, Desmond Doyle, a rambunctious Irishman who looked a bit like Pierce Brosnan, had his children taken away from him by court order after his wife deserted the family and his wife's mother claimed he was an unfit, unemployed father. His life in ruins and his sons and daughter, Evelyn, scattered among several orphanages (under the Irish Children's Act, which granted vast power to church and state in family matters), Doyle decided to fight back. With the help of dedicated lawyers, he waged an unprecedented battle against the hegemony of Ireland's Ministry of Education and the Catholic Church.
The story of that battle, subject to the typical dramatic liberties and license of the movies, is the substance of producer/star Brosnan's "Evelyn," one of the season's more moving films. In Paul Pender's compact, vivid screenplay, we see Doyle confronted by the smug tyranny of the Irish Children's Law and orphanage system. His children are put in church institutions, his successful efforts to turn his life around are ignored, and his pleas to have his kids returned are blocked by an absurd technicality: Since his straying wife is unreachable in Australia, she can't give her consent to return the children.
The case, a media sensation at the time, made Irish history. The movie, directed by Bruce Beresford, conveys that hothouse national drama, with its florid local TV programs and packed courtrooms. At the storm center, Brosnan plays Doyle with a different kind of heroism than he invests in the cool, witty brutality of his James Bond. Doyle is a man of rough-hewn Dublin pluck and fatherly courage.
Brosnan produced the movie, and he obviously relishes the part and the film. He gives Doyle a fine mix of outward braggadocio and deep gentleness, and the giant-killing team of lawyers who took Doyle's case are a top-notch supporting crew.
Stephen Rea's Michael Beattie anchors the attorneys. Alan Bates plays advisor Tom Connolly, a hard-drinking former soccer star with a passion for quixotic stands. Aidan Quinn, who impersonates Irish-American star barrister Nick Barron, adds suave wit and self-sacrificing romance as part of the movie's implausible but likable triangle between Barron, Doyle and outspoken barmaid Bernadette Beattie (Julianna Margulies). And as Evelyn, Sophie Vavasseur gives us a vision of little girlhood that's sweet but not sentimental, even when she has to convey her character being inspired, literally, by a light from heaven.
Parental love is one of the most powerful emotions you can use on screen - and also one of the most easily exploited. But "Evelyn" has a chord of raw feeling that roused and touched me. Beresford is an expert at tense courtroom drama ("Breaker Morant") and honest sentiment ("Driving Miss Daisy"), and here he mixes his specialties. He presents a battle of a little guy against the system, treats us to an archetypal romance, and plucks the strings that bind a family or community together.
Ireland's Catholic Church and its old institutions take a historical beating in two current movies, "Evelyn" and Peter Mullan's yet-to be released Venice Festival prize-winner "The Magdalene Sisters," both based on fact and past abuses. But "Evelyn" is the gentler of the two. It balances the church and Education Ministry villains with a steadfast nun and stalwart priest or two, and amuses us with the contrasts.
The fact that the story of Doyle and his children is essentially true - a landmark case which changed Irish jurisprudence - makes it all the more effective. It may not have happened precisely this way - Brosnan's Doyle may be more handsome, his lawyers more colorfully brilliant and eccentric - but Beresford and Pender give us the events and people the way most of us would want to see them. Brosnan, like Sean Connery before him (and unlike Roger Moore), often uses his Bond clout for worthy projects like this, and that makes "Evelyn" an admirable dividend from "Die Another Day." If the real-life story is genuinely inspirational, the movie stirs us as well.
3 stars (out of 4) "Evelyn"
Directed by Bruce Beresford; written by Paul Pender; photographed by Andre Fleuren; edited by Humphrey Dixon; production designed by John Stoddart; music by Stephen Endelman; produced by Pierce Brosnan, Beau St. Clair, Michael Ohoven. A United Artists release; opens Friday, Dec. 13. Running time: 1:33. MPAA rating: PG (thematic material and language).
Desmond Doyle - Pierce Brosnan
Nick Barron - Aidan Quinn
Bernadette Beattie - Julianna Margulies
Michael Beattie - Stephen Rea
Evelyn Doyle - Sophie Vavasseur Tom Connolly - Alan Bates
Michael Wilmington is the Chicago Tribune Movie Critic.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times