A formula family tearjerker told with a heavy Irish brogue, “Evelyn” is like a TV movie of the week–one of those supposedly heartwarming stories about a parent who fights an entrenched court system to get back custody of a child whom the well-intentioned but unfeeling state has removed from his care. (It’s even “based on a true story,” as the opening blurb invariably reads.) The only things that set it apart from a Lifetime Network offering that you’d probably switch off in a couple of minutes (or an episode of “Unsolved Mysteries” about people searching for long-lost siblings) are the gorgeous period locations (the tale is set in 1953), captured in crystalline cinematography by Andre Fleuren, and a cast that includes a host of illustrious British performers. But one can look at lovely vistas only so long, and as it turns out the celebrated actors abandon all subtlety in making their way through what is, after all, an extremely sappy and maudlin script.
Pierce Brosnan, whose production company was involved in making the picture, stars as Desmond Doyle, an out-of-work painter whose wife leaves him for another man, abandoning their three children in the process–precocious Evelyn (Sophie Vavasseur) and her two younger brothers. Under the Irish child-protection system operative at the time, the children are removed from Doyle’s care and installed in church-run orphanages; and the father finds that, even after he cleans up his life (cutting back on the drinking, particularly) and gets a job, the law will prevent them being returned to him while he remains a single parent. Desmond thereupon enlists the help of Bernadette (Julianna Margulies), the local barmaid he’s interested in, to secure legal advice from her brother, solicitor Michael (Stephen Rea). Michael impresses upon him the difficulty of challenging the system, but Doyle is insistent, and he eventually finds himself with a legal team that includes not only Michael but Nick Barron (Aidan Quinn), an Irish-American barrister who also happens to be Bernadette’s current beau, and Tom Connolly (Alan Bates), a rambunctious old specialist in family law. The case eventually comes down to a constitutional challenge before the Irish Supreme Court, a judge (Conor Evans) who’s been hand-packed to find in favor of the government, the testimony of sweet young Evelyn herself, and the word of an angry, abusive nun (Marian Quinn) who’s determined to block the girl’s reunion with her father. Of course, there’s also the question of whether Bernadette will opt for Doyle or Nick, too.
“Evelyn” is thus a sort of combination of courtroom “Rocky” and modern-day “Oliver,” with lots of local Irish color and a bit of romance thrown in for good measure. If it were played at a fairly subdued pitch, it might have gotten by on low-key Celtic charm; unfortunately, it quickly grows very heavy-handed. Brosnan is part of the problem; he might be Irish-born, but his accent seems exaggerated, and he underlines Doyle’s quirks much too strenuously. The other male stars come on similarly strong; Rea, Bates and Quinn give the audience so many winks, nods and shrugs that they’re constantly reminding us of how “on” they are–with their thespian soft-shoe routine of the suave gentleman and crafty old coot, Rea and Bates in particular seem to be doing a Music Hall sketch. (When all the gents get together, it’s rather like peeking in on a convention of would-be leprechauns.) Among the women, Claire Mullan is equally broad as Doyle’s hard-bitten mother-in-law, but Margulies is sadly nondescript, and young Vavasseur is too busy acting quietly angelic to seem very real. Frank Kelly is a true crowd-pleaser as Doyle’s “da,” a lovable old duffer with an elfin grin; indeed, he’s so charming that a death scene seems inevitable, and when he gives little Evelyn a talk about sunbeams representing the presence of one’s guardian angel, the reappearance of the idea of “angel rays” late in the proceedings will shock no one–though it might make you retch a bit. You can’t entirely blame the performers, though. Bruce Beresford is usually a sane and sensible director, but in this case, perhaps intoxicated by too many shots of Irish whiskey, he lays on the Irish whimsy with a trowel while accentuating, rather than muting, the plot’s saccharine thrust.
“Evelyn” certainly looks great–Fleuren’s skilled camera bathes everything in a rich, burnished glow–and it has an atmospheric score by Stephen Endelman, too. But unless you’re a sucker for cheap sentiment and don’t mind being manipulated in the most obvious fashion, you shouldn’t find it difficult to resist its insistent tugging at your heartstrings.