Evelyn

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Evelyn

It's possible, albeit just barely, that director Bruce Beresford could have wormed a few more scraps of mawkish sentimentality out of the dramatic real-life story of Evelyn Doyle. But such an attempt would have to feature a lost puppy gamely limping through the snow, since Evelyn exploits just about every other syrupy bit of overwrought iconography imaginable. Doyle's autobiography explains how, in the early 1950s, her father enrolled her and her five siblings in Catholic-run "industrial schools" while he left Ireland to look for work in England. But when he returned, his children had been declared wards of the state, and he had to fight a precedent-setting legal battle to get them back. First-time screenwriter Paul Pender stacks his deck from the beginning; in his version of events, the state aggressively steals Evelyn (Sophie Vavasseur) and her two brothers away after their philandering mother abandons their father (a scruffy, thick-brogued Pierce Brosnan). Initially, the government argues that the unemployed Brosnan can't support his family, but even after he finds work, he's denied custody on a technicality: His missing wife hasn't co-signed the release papers. The real issue, however, is the state's proven belief that Catholic cloisters are better equipped to raise children than a single father could possibly be. In his despair, Brosnan begins exploring Irish stereotypes, drinking heavily, picking fights, saying "Jaysus!" a lot, and singing traditional Irish songs in pubs. But salvation comes in the form of a pack of heartwarmingly sincere helpers, including a no-nonsense barmaid (Julianna Margulies), her dour solicitor brother (Stephen Rea), his American-accented barrister partner (Aidan Quinn), and a crusty, retired, alcoholic, famously incorruptible family-law specialist (Alan Bates) who's also a former rugby star. Righteousness, if not the law, is on their side, and Beresford and Pender never let the audience forget that for a moment. They belabor the state's injustice, and they seem to operate under the mission statement "Nothing's implausible if it's adorable." The suitably adorable Vavasseur serves as their proof of concept: She delivers wide-eyed exposition to her dolly, captivates a courtroom with her pious prayers for the Irish nation, publicly forgives the evil nun who beat her for defending another abused child, and lets the world know, in a stomach-turning recurring bit, that sunbeams are "angel rays." Small wonder that Brosnan, in Evelyn's promotional posters, raises his perfect Pollyanna in triumph, focusing entirely on her as his wistful-looking sons cling to him, unnoticed. From the maudlin musical cues to a senseless romantic subplot that's only barely tacked on, every aspect of Evelyn stabs blindly and insistently at emotional buttons. Even a fixed dog-race is shot in slow motion and milked for its nonexistent drama. By putting real life firmly into the realm of the unbelievable, Beresford has made the feel-manipulated movie of the year.

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