There once was a time, roughly 20 years ago, when Australian director Bruce Beresford was associated with powerful political and spiritual dramas like Breaker Morant and Tender Mercies. But lately, his films have been far less challenging. When he isn’t making a boilerplate revenge thriller like Double Jeapordy, Beresford tends to make smaller films, often based on true stories, which reduce their subjects to easily digested character types, and Evelyn, a feel-good, crowd-pleasing, Capra-esque dramatization of a landmark Irish court case, is just such a film.
Set in the 1950s, it tells the story of Desmond Doyle (Pierce Brosnan), a single, out-of-work father whose children are taken from him and placed in orphanages because neither the state nor the Catholic church believe he is capable of meeting their needs. Determined to get his children back — why the film is named after his daughter when he has two sons as well is not entirely clear, unless there is greater sentimental value in rooting for little girls than for little boys — he takes the government to court. And since someone made an uplifting movie about the case, you never doubt for a second that Desmond will win in the end.
To his credit, Beresford, working from a script by novice screenwriter Paul Pender, knows that we know how this story will end, so he does not try to inflate it with fake dramatic tension; instead, he fills the movie with comic relief, so much so that it almost becomes a comedy. Michael Beattie, the first solicitor Desmond turns to for help, tells him to wear better clothes so he will make a better impression on the judge, and since Michael is played by Stephen Rea, who looks less rumpled than usual but still has that sullen, hangdog face, we cannot help but laugh when he suggests that Pierce Brosnan, of all people, follow his lead in matters of grooming and attire.
For help, Desmond and Michael turn to Nick Barron (Aidan Quinn), an Irish-American barrister who competes with Desmond for the romantic attention of Michael’s sister Bernadette (Julianna Margulies), and to Nick’s mentor Tom Connolly (Alan Bates), an agnostic who smuggles a rosary into the courtroom and, in a humorous finale, teeters on the edge of his seat as the three justices on the Irish Supreme Court render their verdict. The film also makes an amusing aside or two concerning that newfangled invention, television, when a local station that prides itself on its “ultra-modern studio” picks up Desmond’s story.
Another striking feature of this film is the way it depicts the Catholic church. The film does not clarify exactly how involved the church was in setting up the family law that deprives Desmond of his children — the state seems to bear the most responsibility for that — but the priests and nuns we meet all seem like decent folk, except for the one requisite hypocrite who punishes a girl in class for failing to describe God’s mercy correctly. Rather than pit Desmond and his family against the church as a whole, Beresford, whose films have often reflected a religious sensibility, portrays them as devout Catholics who critique the secular and religious authorities by appealing to the church’s most foundational beliefs.
At times, especially whenever the titular girl (Sophie Vavasseur) looks at the sunlight and sees “angel rays”, the film has a saccharine quality that undermines whatever lessons it is trying to teach us about history and family, and at times, you wish the film would spend more time on the more serious side of Desmond’s predicament; his wife abandons the family in the film’s first few minutes, and we get no insight into the reasons for their failed marriage beyond a few relatively tame arguments between Desmond and his mother-in-law. But if you’re prepared to just sit back and enjoy the show, Evelyn isn’t the worst way to spend a couple hours. It’s an entertaining film — but it could have been more.