Under the confident and extremely economical direction of Bruce Beresford (Driving Miss Daisy), this polished first script by Paul Pender plunks us down into Christmastime Dublin, circa 1953. Unemployed handyman Doyle strives to scrape up some holiday cheer for his three children, including the eponymous Evelyn (a glowing Sophie Vavasseur) and younger lads Dermot (Niall Beagan) and Maurice (Hugh MacDonagh), but times are tight at Fatima Mansion, the Spartan tenement they call home. In fact, even though Doyle is clearly the most handsome man the world has ever known, his hard times are proving too much for his wife, Charlotte (Mairead Devlin). She bails on her family and drives off into oblivion with a mystery man, leaving Doyle heartbroken and overburdened. And then the real trouble starts.
What makes Evelyn click when it could have clucked is that Beresford and Pender instill each moment with as much character as will fit on the screen. The movie's formula -- call it Celtic Capra -- is obvious from start to finish, but the delivery is splendid. Before Doyle can say, "You don't know sweet F.A. about it," he finds himself -- thanks to a manipulative mother-in-law -- under the inspection of the Society for Protection Against Cruelty to Children. The poor fellow has already wept by the fire, cutting and burning photographs of his former beloved, but now he's forced to bear the indignity of having his children taken away, the boys to one stern religious school, the girl to another. Although the boys are handled only peripherally, Doyle's struggle to reclaim Evelyn reveals that even fully grown adults can have coming-of-age experiences.
Beresford, having made his name more than two decades ago with the superb Breaker Morant, truly knows his way around a courtroom drama, and indeed Evelyn climaxes with an exciting, if humbler, sequence of dramatic exchanges. However, before Doyle gets his Irish up to battle the Supreme Court for the custody he obviously deserves -- the real case was a landmark that changed Irish law -- the man is treated to a rigorous obstacle course for his pride. First there's the drink, made all the more attractive in his loneliness and despair. Then there's his pesky accent and fondness for peculiar terms such as "gobshite" (just kidding; the Irish-born Brosnan fits in fairly naturally, more than Richard Harris in The Field or Martin Sheen in Da, and they were both good). And of course there's the fact that he's extremely headstrong and vulnerable -- not a powerful combination.
While Evelyn struggles to make the best of her lockup at the very Dickensian St. Joseph's School (it ain't Hogwarts) amid nice nuns like Sister Felicity (Karen Ardiff) and nasty ones like Sister "Frigid" Brigid (Andrea Irvine), Doyle does all he can to rebuild his family, which includes little mistakes such as assaulting the latter nun and attempting to punch out a priest. Fortunately, providence remains on his side in the form of a compassionate barmaid named Bernadette (the ever more entrancing Julianna Margulies) who happens to have a brother named Michael (the always welcome Stephen Rea) who's a lawyer. Once they hook up with mildly pushy Irish-American lawyer Nick Barron (Aidan Quinn, begging none of the punishment Tom Berenger received for invading Ireland in The Field), and Nick's wisecracking mentor Tom Connolly (Alan Bates in fine form), Doyle's ready to fight.
With a project like Evelyn, there's a risk of descending into maudlin murk -- the plaintive fiddles, the gasping uilleann pipes -- but the movie mainly opts to be lively, often funny, without undermining the seriousness of Doyle's plight. While he battles for his kin, he proves himself quite the social scientist ("I like Yanks! Most of 'em was Irish to begin with!") and singer (Brosnan gets real, delivering an authentic recital of "On the Banks of the Roses"). It gets a bit sickly-sweet when Evelyn's Grandda (Frank Kelly) tells her about celestial "angel rays" and they keep showing up, but heck, one can't bicker when a movie sets out to become a family classic and succeeds.