I’m guessing that more than a few people will notice that Evelyn is a film about an Irish father trying to gain custody of his kids and immediately think of Kramer vs. Kramer. How in the world is that appropriate for family viewing? Well, the 1979 Academy Award-winning picture starring Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep isn’t appropriate, unless you think it’s character building for children to watch parents say and do some pretty nasty things to each other while tugging at their offspring as if they were a wishbone. But Evelyn isn’t like that at all. To continue the analogy, it’s more like Kramer vs. the Government.
Based on a real 1955 custody case that had an entire nation hanging on the decision, Evelyn stars Pierce Brosnan in a very un-Bondlike role. He plays Desmond Doyle, an out-of-work Irishman who sings in his father’s band and drinks a little too much. But it’s clear that he has a good heart and he loves his children. He’s crushed when his wife (and their mother) runs off to Australia with another man, and Irish law at the time forbade children from being raised by a single parent. The children are removed from the home and placed in a Roman Catholic orphanage, where neglect and abuse are as common as the priest scandals that have dominated the headlines in recent years. Viewers soon discover that the orphanages are full of faux orphans—children taken away from a single parent who still loves them dearly and wishes to care for them.
Most parents give up, the film’s narrative tells us. It is, after all, Irish law. But not Desmond Doyle. After a few aborted attempts to get his children illegally, he attracts the attention of a woman working extra hours as a bartender to help pay for her education. She has a brother (Stephen Rea) who might be able to help him. And a would-be suitor from America (Aidan Quinn) who just happens to be a barrister. Before long, they’ve attracted the interest of another lawyer who moonlights as a sports announcer (Alan Bates). Suddenly, Doyle isn’t just a single father fighting the system in futility. He’s part of a team that’s trying to establish a new precedent in Irish law—one that’s fairer to families.
The first third of this film can seem like a downer, but the performances are absorbing and in no time at all it takes an inspirational, feel-good turn. You find yourself quickly pulling for Doyle and Evelyn and his two boys, who apparently aren’t important enough to be included in the title, and as you root for them and realize that people all over Ireland were doing the same back in 1955, the film takes on a life of its own. Evelyn (Sophie Vavasseur, Becoming Jane) even has an inspirational speech, and that won’t escape the notice of young viewers. But Hollywood being Hollywood, the truth is stretched to accommodate such feel-good moments. If you dip into historical accounts or even go back as far as the film’s 2003 release, you’ll find that abuse survivors weren’t pleased with the film. Then again, if they were, I probably wouldn’t be reviewing it for Family Home Theater.
Evelyn is capably directed by Bruce Beresford (Driving Miss Daisy) from a screenplay written by Paul Pender (The Bogie Man).
Language: Fewer than a dozen lesser obscenities
Sex: Just one very subtle joke about sex
Violence: A drunken Desmond has a bout with a priest
Adult situations: Desmond is no saint, and there is plenty of smoking and drinking
Takeaway: Hollywood may have given this the feel-good treatment, but there’s still an argument to be made for hopefulness and heartwarming cinema