The Children Act Review

The Children Act
In the midst of a marital crisis (her husband has announced he intends to have an affair), High Court judge Fiona Maye (Emma Thompson) has to decide whether 17-year-old Jehovah’s Witness Adam (Fionn Whitehead) should be forced into having a life-saving blood transfusion.

by Ian Freer |
Published on
Release Date:

24 Aug 2018

Original Title:

The Children Act

He might not be approaching Stephen King levels, but Brit author

Ian McEwan is racking up the book-to-film adaptations. Since 1990, The Comfort Of Strangers, The Cement Garden, The Innocent, Enduring Love, Atonement and, most recently, On Chesil Beach have all been released on the big screen with various levels of success. Despite its literary origins, the latest, The Children Act, feels somewhat stage-bound: adapted by McEwan himself, it is a showcase for strong performances, especially by Emma Thompson and Fionn Whitehead, and long dialogue scenes chewing over meaty issues (morality versus law), but lacks a cinematic and emotional vitality to demand its place on the big screen.

The Children Act

The set-up flits between the professional and the personal. Widely respected judge Fiona Maye (Thompson) specialises in knotty cases of family law — we meet her mulling over whether to separate conjoined twins, knowing one will die — and is devoted to her work, to the detriment of her marriage to university lecturer Jack (Stanley Tucci).

It never catches fire at any point either narratively or cinematically.

The childless couple haven’t had sex in 11 months (he has the date in his diary) so, in a scene almost played for laughs, Jack announces his intention to have an affair with a young student. With her marriage unravelling, Fiona is assigned the case of Adam (Whitehead), a teen suffering from leukaemia who could be saved by a blood transfusion: the doctors want to undertake the procedure, but Adam and his parents (Ben Chaplin, Eileen Walsh) are Jehovah’s Witnesses and believe the mixing of blood will dilute God’s soul. Fiona has to weigh up both sides then make a decision.

As a filmmaker, Richard Eyre (who previously made McEwan’s script for The Ploughman’s Lunch) is restrained and empathetic, and the competing arguments are complex but compelling. But it never catches fire at any point either narratively or cinematically — the drama somewhat dried out (it is not helped by Stephen Warbeck’s score, which compounds the airless quality), the filmmaking very small screen. The relationship between Fiona and Jack also feels under-powered. We are given very little sense of their history — a wordless flashback to happier times doesn’t do much to help — or dynamics, so there is little to invest in.

As such, Tucci does his best as the ignored husband with very little to work with and Whitehead, the central figure in Dunkirk, is curious and open-hearted in a completely engaging way. But this is Thompson’s show. If there is nothing as powerful as that scene in Love Actually, she is detailed and vulnerable as a woman who is always distracted but etches a journey towards emotion with authenticity and compassion. She is the closest The Children Act comes to providing a big beating heart.

If it lacks filmmaking fireworks and emotional wallop, The Children Act delivers a sensitive, thoughtful drama about complicated issues. And it is another reminder, if one were needed, of the subtlety and skill of Emma Thompson’s stratospheric talent.
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