Hard Knock Life

Pierce Brosnan takes on politicians and orphanages in Evelyn

If you ever doubted the brilliance of our Founding Fathers, consider for a moment the separation of Church and State. With God officially on the side of lawyers and politicians, law-abiding citizens would be hard pressed to ever challenge the government. Thankfully, that’s never been a problem in the good old U.S.A. (although in the ever-growing fight against “evildoers,” we’re coming awfully close). Ireland, however, is a different story; at least it was before 1953, when an unemployed tradesman named Desmond Doyle challenged the constitutionality of an Irish law. The law, called the Children’s Act of 1941, allowed children of single-parent homes to be placed in Church-run orphanages at the government’s discretion, usually when the parent was deemed somehow unfit (in Doyle’s case, a lack of steady income did him in). A somewhat ironic stipulation required a petition from both parents to spring a child from the institutions, meaning a widow or widower’s children might stay in an orphanage until their 16th birthday. Doyle’s remarkable story is recounted in Evelyn. Pierce Brosnan plays the man whose three children are taken from him when his wife skips town with another man. Unable to track her down, he enlists the aid of his friend Bernadette (Julianna Margulies), the barmaid at his local pub. She puts him in touch with her solicitor brother, Michael (Stephen Rea), who in turn enlists an American lawyer, Nick (Aidan Quinn), and Nick’s mentor Tom (Alan Bates). Together, they attempt to do the unprecedented: challenge a law before the Irish Supreme Court. To this compelling story, first-time screenwriter Paul Pender and director Bruce Beresford have added heaping helpings of saccharine-sweet sappiness. Not content to let the story’s innate drama speak for itself, they drown it in layer upon layer of sentimentality, symbolism, and cliché. Thus, as the events unfold, Doyle swears off drinking and becomes a better man. He learns valuable lessons about life and love, and he witnesses firsthand the innate goodness of humankind. At the center of it all is Evelyn (Sophie Vavasseur), a wee lass with a freckled nose and a brogue that would melt the heart of Scrooge himself. Surrounded in the orphanage by enough rosy-cheeked moppets to cast ten national tours of Annie, Evelyn suffers at the hands of a stereotypically sadistic nun and is comforted by a stereotypically virtuous one. All the while, she says her nightly prayers and trusts in the power of “angel rays,” the beams of sunlight she believes are sent down from Heaven by her guardian angel. Only Brosnan’s powerfully subdued performance keeps things from drowning in schmaltz. Without once veering into melodrama, he conveys the utter devastation of a man who’s lost everything; with only the slightest facial expression or gesture, he shifts to the steely determination of a man with nothing to lose. Things are also buoyed by frequent moments of genuine levity and warmth, many of which center around the activities at the pub. Despite the recurrent heavy-handedness, there’s no denying Evelyn has a true heart. It’s just sometimes hard to find beneath all the sugar coating.