Anyone who has ever lost a child to the welfare system knows the frustration and bewilderment of trying to get them back. In extreme cases, the children are better off, but the system does make mistakes, unjustly separating families who are nothing more than victims of circumstance.

At least we have a judicial system that allows wrongs to be righted. Imagine the horror of Desmond Doyle (Pierce Brosnan), a husband and father who makes a marginal living painting and decorating. When Desmond’s wife walks out on him and their three children, he’s forced to seek government assistance.

Instead of receiving help, Doyle becomes the victim of an archaic law that determines a single father is unfit to raise his own children. If his wife had died, there would be no problem, but as written (obviously in stone), Doyle must surrender his daughter Evelyn (Sophie Vavasseur) and sons Maurice (Hugh MacDonagh) and Dermot (Niall Beagan) to the state.

“Evelyn,” based on Doyle’s real life struggle to change the law and win back his kids, is a small movie, but it has a big heart. Directed with a firm hand by Bruce Beresford (Driving Miss Daisy), “Evelyn” manages to draw us into Doyle’s dilemma without forcing us to wade through miles of melodrama. Writer Paul Pender compresses time without cheating us, giving us and the characters just enough information to make their case.

Brosnan is excellent as Doyle, a responsible family man who likes to drink when he can’t find work. When he needs extra money, he sings with his father in pubs. It’s there where Doyle meets comely waitress Bernadette (Julianna Margulies), a level headed woman who sees through Doyle’s brave front and offers him help.

Brosnan is at his best when his concern turns to his children. His love and devotion is so genuine and strong you can’t help but root for him to prevail. Every time Doyle gets knocked down, we’re right there with him, anxious to get back in the fight, and what a fight it is.

Doyle’s quest to get back his children leads him to a number of colorful characters, all of whom seem anxious to help but find themselves caught between a rock and a hard place. Bernadette’s brother Michael (Stephen Rea), an attorney, would like to help but fears reprisal, as does notable family law attorney Tom Connolly (Alan Bates).

Just when things look hopeless, Doyle meets Irish-born American Nick (Aidan Quinn), a friend of Bernadette’s and someone who isn’t afraid of taking on the court. Set in 1953, “Evelyn” explores a legal system that has since been changed, but the focus is always on Doyle and his children.

Sophie Vavasseur is outstanding as Evelyn, a young girl with a mature sense of what is right and wrong. Vavasseur, in her debut, displays skills that transcend acting. Her strength and faith come from within, so we never see her as precocious. In less talented hands the character of Evelyn would have been a brat. We instantly embrace Vavasseur’s brave performance.

MacDonagh and Beagan are equally effective as Doyle’s two boys, who are too young to understand why their mother left but smart enough to know that they are being railroaded.

Beresford gets the best out of his supporting cast, including a very Gaelic Julianna Margulies, who comes off equal parts sweet and smart, exactly the kind of woman you would want behind an Irish bar. She’s the voice of reason, and the reason Doyle doesn’t give up his fight. After spending ten minutes with her, you understand what Doyle sees in her.

Rea, Bates and Quinn brighten up the courtroom scenes, a trio of actors who generously stay in the background but still command the screen.

Filming on location, director Beresford perfectly recreates Ireland of fifty years ago. “Evelyn” looks and feel authentic, never succumbing to the “Darby O’ Gill and the Little People” state of mind. Irish eyes may be smiling, but there’s also a lot of tears in “Evelyn.”

Beresford worked with Brosnan in the 1990 Colonial drama “Mister Johnson,” but it obvious that their working relationship has matured along with their talents. Brosnan delivers a dynamic performance that effectively explores numerous emotional levels, while Beresford manipulates what could have been melodrama into a stirring tale of family and justice.

In a season of big-budget blockbusters, “Evelyn” needs all the help it can get finding an audience. There are no car chases, and the only thing that explodes are tempers, but anyone looking for a heartfelt, smart and engaging drama should look no further.


Brosnan bonds with tale of social injustice


Pierce Brosnan, Julianna Margulies, Aidan Quinn, Stephen Rea, Alan Bates, and Sophie Vavasseur. Directed by Bruce Beresford. Rated PG. 94 Minutes.


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