EVELYN (2002) blu-ray review
written by: Paul Pender
produced by: Pierce Brosnan, Michael Ohoven and Beau St. Clair
directed by: Bruce Beresford
rated: PG (for thematic material and language)
runtime: 93 min.
U.S. release date: December 13, 20102 (limited)
DVD/blu-ray release date: February 21, 2017
“Evelyn” is a film I’ve had in the back of my mind as one I’ve wanted to catch up with. I recall the Pierce Brosnan film receiving good reviews when it came out in 2002, a month after “Die Another Day”, his final bow as James Bond, and all I knew is that it was an inspiring drama about an Irish father and his family. Thanks to Olive Films, I was finally able to catch up with this lovely drama, due to its upcoming release on blu-ray. There’s much to respect in the straightforward approach to this Bruce Beresford-directed drama, which simply relies on classic storytelling and a phenomenal cast, in an emotional “based on a true story” tale about love, faith and family. It’s most likely an overlooked film that deserves to be revisited or discovered.
Set in 1953 working-class Ireland, the film opens with Desmond Doyle’s (Brosnan) wife leaving him and his three children on St. Stephen’s Day (the day after Christmas) , which leaves him devastated, overwhelmed and indulging in Guinness at the local pub. It’s unclear why Desmond’s wife left him. There’s another man in the film that his wife runs off with, but this isn’t her story, just the family she abandoned. We get the idea that the disheveled unemployed interior painter/designer is a bit of a drunk, but never neglectful or abusive towards his family. He has the support of his father, Henry (Frank Kelly), but when his mother-in-law (Claire Mullan) reports his situation to the local authorities and it is determined and mandated by Irish law, that a man cannot raise children on his own and the court places Dermot (Niall Beagan), Maurice (Hugh McDonagh) and Evelyn (Sophie Vavasseur) in church-run orphanages.
From here we see some of what the two boys are experiencing, but the focus is mainly on the titular, nine-year-old Evelyn, who winds up winning over those whom she encounters (and viewers) with her sweet, pure-hearted nature who winds up winning over those she encounters. She is holding up well apart from her father and brothers, making friends with fellow orphans and endearing herself to the nuns, save for the abusive and cruel Sister Bridget (Andrea Irvine), but her father isn’t coping as well.
A barmaid named Bernadette (Juliana Marguiles) suggests Desmond finds a lawyer and suggests he look up her brother, Michael Beattie (Stephen Rea), a local solicitor (lawyer) to help him reunite with his children. Beattie doesn’t shy away from letting the distraught father know that the outcome of such a case is bleak, but if he’d clean himself up and get steady work his chances might be better. Desmond takes to heart such a response and input and soon finds work painting ceilings and singing in pubs with his father, knowing that the lawyer hadn’t turn him down. Indeed, with some pleading and pestering from Desmond, the solicitor relents and gets another lawyer, Nick Barron (Aidan Quinn) involved – a recently-arrived Irish-born Yank who’s been hitting on Bernadette at the pub – knowing that he can’t tackle the case on his own.
With Desmond quitting the drink, he and the two lawyers visit mentor Tom Connolly (Alan Bates), a former rugby player/retired lawyer to assist them in taking the case to the Supreme Court after being denied locally. Connolly’s involvement gets the press involved and a groundbreaking case is underway that challenges the close relationship between the Catholic church and the Irish government as a father who originally just wanted to get his children back now finds himself trying to overturn Irish law.
Screenwriter Paul Pender personally dropped off the manuscript for this film at Brosnan’s MGM office, hoping that the Irish actor would consider it. Why wouldn’t he? Brosnan had already co-founded a production company called Irish Dream Time with partner Beau St. Clair and had reportedly been hoping to bring Irish stories to the big-screen. At one point, Brosnan was toying with the idea of playing Quinn’s lawyer role, but the character of Desmond Doyle won him over and it’s a good thing since it’s a rich role, providing the actor with an opportunity to show some range (especially during a time when his Bond run had just ended), not to mention provide him with the chance to show his singing abilities (don’t worry, it’s much better than “Mama Mia!”) as warbling traditional Irish folksongs.
Brosnan’s performance really is a delight here, playing a character who’s life is thrust into drastic change. Although we don’t see any the dynamic between his wife, we assume the deterioration of their marriage had the couple on fumes that he did his best to hide from the children, but children know, especially the astute Evelyn. Brosnan feels relaxed, as if it’s a relief to take a breather from 007 (I’m sure it was) and he’s in fine company with this examplary supporting cast. As expected, Marguiles plays a love interest, but she’s a refreshingly independent strong presence. While there is a subtle love triangle between herself, Brosnan and Quinn, the screenplay never makes a big deal out of it, nor is it played for laughs as it would in a release from a major American studio – for a change adults act like adults – plus, the focus appropriately always comes back to what’s at stake: a father and his children.
There certainly are moments when just taking in scenes with these actors together makes for thoroughly enjoyable viewing. It’s a treat to see Brosnan, Rhea, Quinn and Bates sharing the screen together, having conversations about how best to counter and present their case in court, despite whatever setbacks come their way and continuing to be inspired and motivated by Desmond’s plight. It’s unclear how much of what we see really occurred, but none of that really matters since its easy to get swept-up (the good kind of manipulation) by the earnest approach to the dramatic storytelling here. As expected in a story involving a court case, much of the third act of the film does take place in a court room, but it’s never tedious or overly familiar. In fact, two separate moments when Desmond takes the stand and then when Evelyn is questioned, provides the film with its most vulnerable and heartwarming moments. In not so many words, Evelyn has much to say about religious hypocrisy from the stand, something that’s unfortunately quite timeless.
As the title character, Sophie Vavasseur has a confidence and mature-beyond-her-years presence that reminded me of Liesel Matthews from Alfonso Cuaron’s “The Little Princess”, back in 1995, neither of him comes across as “acting” in their respective roles. Her next film followin “Evelyn” was in a big change, 2004’s “Resident Evil: Apocalypse”, afterwhich she starred in “Becoming Jane” and can currently be found on the History Channel’s “Vikings”. It’s always interesting to see if how long child actors careers will last and where they go.
Austrailian film director Bruce Beresford (“Driving Miss Daisy” and “The Black Robe”) is fortunate to work with a solid screenplay here and a talented cast, yet he also has the forbearance to balance the right tone as well. There are definitely emotionally heavy moments in “Evelyn”, but Beresford also knows how much levity to add and how much of the cruelty inflicted onto the children (especially Evelyn) from the nuns to include. It’s not easy to witness the young girl getting smacked around by a sister who’s supposed to be an example of grace, kindness and love, which is why Pender and Beresford know that “less is more”.
The outcome of “Evelyn” is obvious – or else why would such a film get made? By the time Desmond is reunited with his three children (in real life, there were six), we are ready to celebrate with him and the rest of the townspeople. Ultimately, “Evelyn” winds up being sweet and compelling story, a surprisingly spiritual one too, that simply delivers a poignant tale of a determined and loving father and the lengths he would go to remain right where he needs to be.
Here’s the big surprise. I’m used to Olive Films releasing “bare bones” discs, but here there’s not one, but two commentaries – by director Bruce Beresford and one by co-producers, Pierce Brosnan and Beau St. Clair. There’s also two featurettes – one focusing on the making of the film and another focusing on the details and events surrounding the real-life characters, both of which made during production of the film.
The commentaries offer typical background information on why the film was made, how the screenplay was developed and what experiences they had while making “Evelyn”. Brosnan looks back on the film fondly, at one point stating
Beresford soft-spoken commentary goes into details of the filmmaking process. He mentions how he had to change modern-day Dublin (circa 2002) to look like 1953 Ireland and drew special interest to the various regional Irish accents used by actors in supporting roles and the lead actors. It’s not necessarily an absorbing commentary, but it’s always good to listen to a director look back on their work.
In the commentary with Brosnan and St. Clair, we hear the two partners reflect on what “Evelyn” meant to them and specific memories of the filmmaking experience. At one point, Brosnan states, “I hold this film close to my heart. I absolutely adore it. It is a jewel. They don’t come around that often and couldn’t have come at a better time in my career”. That’s understandable considering the story, all involved and the soulful performance from the actor. The two aren’t entirely talkative throughout the commentary. At times it feels like they’re just watching it along with you – not necessarily what you want in a commentary – but then you get a story about an extra having an epileptic seizure during the climactic courtroom scene. Overall, there’s definitely enough to glean and satisfy from what’s provided.