THE CHILDREN ACT

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Richard Eyre

Stars: Emma Thompson, Stanley Tucci, Fionn Whitehead, Ben Chaplin, Eileen Walsh.

Emma Thompson and Fionn Whitehead in The Children Act (2017)Fiona Maye (Emma Thompson) is a high court judge who specialises in family law cases and whose responsibility it is under 1989 British law to protect the welfare of minors. It is a duty the workaholic judge takes very seriously, and she has earned a reputation as one of the most respected judges in the country. She has had to make some tough decisions occasionally, such as ordering the separation of conjoined twins, over their parents’ objections, knowing that the operation may well kill one of the children. But her work has placed a serious strain on her thirty-year marriage to university lecturer husband Jack (Stanley Tucci), and their relationship has stagnated. The couple are childless, although Jack has always wanted a bigger family. For her part Maye has repressed her emotions and is a pretty buttoned-down character.

Then she is asked to adjudicate in a case involving Adam Henry (Fionn Whitehead, from Dunkirk, etc), a 17-year old Jehovah’s Witness suffering from leukemia who is refusing a life saving blood transfusion. It is against their religion. While Adam’s parents (Ben Chaplin and Eileen Walsh) bitterly oppose the transfusion, Fiona decides that she needs to hear from Adam himself, so in an unprecedented move she visits the boy in his hospital room. She discovers that Adam is a lively, intelligent young man, and decrees that he receives the life-saving treatment. As she becomes emotionally involved in the case, Fiona has to wrestle with her conscience, and her stoic façade begins to crumble.

Soon after though she finds that the now healthy and independent Adam is stalking her – but not in a nasty way; he just wants to get to know his saviour and have her share in his life. But this makes her increasingly uncomfortable.

The director is Richard Eyre (Notes On A Scandal, etc) and he handles the material with a measure of restraint while tugging at the heartstrings. But the film is also a little prosaic and at times a bit slow, lacking a great sense of urgency, and it often seems theatrical in its staging. It is also quite manipulative. I felt that it was pushing me in a certain direction and I resisted. Stephen Warbeck’s score is also quite manipulative. The courtroom scenes are handled with surprising restraint and lack the usual dramatics of courtroom dramas.

This intelligent and provocative drama has been adapted by author Ian McEwan (Atonement, etc) from his own best-selling novel, and some of its themes will be familiar to much of his work. Dealing with themes of family, love, guilt, parenthood, religion, responsibility and morality versus the law, it mixes courtroom drama with melodrama. There is some great production design from Peter Francis (Casino Royale, etc) that captures the warm panelled interiors of the courtroom as well as the Maye’s sprawling but somewhat sterile apartment, with it piano and bookshelves. The cinematography from Andrew Dunn (The History Boys, The Lady In The Van, etc) is warm.

Eyre elicits great performances from his central cast. Thompson as usual is excellent, and delivers a confident, passionate and nuanced performance that captures the emotional turmoil of her character. Tucci is also good as her unhappy and neglected husband Jack, although the role doesn’t give him a lot to do. Whitehead brings compassion and sympathy to his role.

★★★

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