The great lie of Oirishness

Film - Philip Kerr turns green at the sentimentality and cliches in the latest US Irish movie

Oirishness in filums has always had a bogus quality in Hollywood movies. When Barry Fitzgerald, previously a distinguished actor in Dublin's Abbey Theatre, appeared in a movie - any movie - he became a caricature of an Irishman in the same way that Hattie McDaniel was obliged to become a caricature black momma in a movie such as Gone With the Wind. I love The Quiet Man, in which Fitzgerald plays - what else? - an Irish priest, but whenever I watch it I'm acutely aware that the Ireland the filum depicts only ever existed in the sentimental imagination of John Ford, a director who wished he had been born in Connemara instead of Cape Elizabeth in Maine. This was, after all, the man who gave us the immortal line, "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend", and whose most famously Oirish leading man, Victor McLaglen, was born in Tunbridge Wells and raised in South Africa.

Ford was only the most obvious example of a Hollywood movie-maker trying to sell us the "great lie" of Oirishness, which is that the Oirish are all lovable rogues with a twinkle in their emerald-green eyes who like a drink, a song and then a bit of a fight. In this respect, David Lean's Ryan's Daughter was no less misleading than The Quiet Man and not nearly as entertaining. There are a few filums with which no one could argue - The Dead, My Left Foot, The Commitments and, well, all right then, Michael Collins. But with a whole generation of Hollywood filum-makers weaned on John Ford, it's been difficult for them to kick the Oirish habit completely.

Far and away the worst of the recent bunch was Far and Away (1992), starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman - a filum so bogusly Oirish that it made Darby O'Gill and the Little People (1959) look like a documentary, begorrah. Not much less preposterous than Tom Cruise giving it plenty of shillelagh have been A Prayer for the Dying (1987), Patriot Games (1992), The Jackal (1997) and The Devil's Own (1997). Most recently of all, the dreadful Gangs of New York was still feeding us the old lie of Oirishness with Leonardo DiCaprio hamming it up as a kind of leprechaun McLaglen.

That was bad enough, but, in truth, I never again expected to see a US movie with so many Irish cliches as Evelyn. Feck, if you were to watch this astonishingly old-fashioned filum with a tick-list prepared by John Ford himself, you would find every box had been checked by the end. In green ink. There's a priest who's pretty handy with his fists, a dodgy nun or two, a wicked Englishman, a drunken rugby-playing lawyer, a fine colleen with a wicked tongue on her, a bookmaker with a heart of gold, an angelic little girl who believes in angels, and enough sweet, syrupy Oirish sentiment to give Gay Byrne hyperglycemia.

Abandoned by his feckless wife for her fancy man ( and an Englishman at that) and desperate to have his three children cared for while he looks for work, the Dublin painter and decorator Desmond Doyle trusted the word of the Irish authorities and put them all into the temporary care of the Oirish state. Based on a true story written by Doyle's daughter Evelyn, the filum is about what happens when Doyle makes the shocking discovery that the state has consigned the children to its permanent care and that, in the absence of the consent of Mrs Doyle (go on, go on), Desmond Doyle could not have his children returned to him. With his wife living at an unknown address in Australia, Doyle begins a desperate legal fight with the Oirish government to reunite his family and change an unjust law.

Doyle is played by the filum's producer, Pierce Brosnan, who is at least an Oirishman and makes a good job of sounding like an unemployed Dublin man. The trouble is that he hardly looks like one: his shirts, jackets, coats and ties all look like cast-offs from Brioni, while Brosnan's hair always has that well-cut, tinted, slightly coiffed look, as if he has just got out of the chair at Nicky Clarke's salon.

Brosnan doesn't resemble an unemployed Oirish painter so much as an unemployed investment banker. The first thing the director, Bruce Beresford, should have done was to send Brosnan to a Dublin Oxfam shop (not so much Die Another Day as See Another Tailor) and a barber's shop somewhere on the city's Northside, where they cut your hair with a knife and fork and dress it with chip vinegar. The man just can't help looking like a god, and the idea that he could ever be unemployed makes less sense than Brad Pitt's Oirish accent in Snatch.

Evelyn (PG) is on general release