The Children’s Act – Film Review by Pat Viale
Writers: Ian McEwan (screenplay by), Ian McEwan (based on the novel by)
Stars: Emma Thompson, Stanley Tucci, Fionn Whitehead
Closely based on the 2014 novel of the same name by Ian McEwan, director Richard Eyre’s film inevitably suffers the same drawbacks as the original text. Both get off to a gripping start with a totally engaging portrait of the central character but as the story develops, credibility is stretched, leading to an unsatisfactory conclusion.
Emma Thompson is superb as Fiona Maye, a High Court judge who deals mainly in cases involving children. Glacial and intransigent, she seems only a step away from her recent portrayal of Goneril in King Lear, also directed by Richard Eyre. When we first meet her she is adjudicating a case concerning conjoined twins. If the babies are left attached, both of them will die. If they are separated, then one will live. Maye, on delivering her judgement, tells us that it is based on “law, not morals.” The same cold legal perspective informs all of her judgements as we see her deal with cases of child custody and abuse.
However, when she becomes involved in the difficult case of a boy on the verge of adulthood, who is refusing a potentially life-saving blood transfusion, the line between her professional and personal life becomes blurred. Adam (newcomer Fionn Whitehead) is suffering from a form of leukaemia that can only be treated successfully through blood transfusions. His parents are Jehovah Witnesses and their faith forbids any form of transfusion, teaching that God lives in the blood, and to accept the blood of another person would be sinful, basing their beliefs on obscure texts from the Old Testament. Adam, who has grown up in the same faith, is just a few months short of his 18th birthday and feels he has a right to decide his own fate but is still legally subject to the Children Act of 1989 which allows the court to decree what is best for him.
After an impassioned courtroom plea by Adam’s father (Ben Chaplin) who describes how his life was transformed when he became a Jehovah Witness and insists that his son’s decision is informed and should be respected, Maye takes the unusual step of deciding to visit the boy in his hospital bed to see for herself. This departure from her normal code of behaviour is probably a sign of the confusion she is facing in her personal life. Her husband (Stanley Tucci) after years of coming second to her professional career, has recently announced that he “is thinking of having an affair”.
The sentimental hospital visit, where Maye and Adam, sing “Down by the Salley Gardens” together show the first cracks in Maye’s composure and is also the first sign of the story going off track. From here the film drifts into a series of unlikely encounters and reactions that border on the melodramatic and are hard to take seriously. The conclusion, with Maye remembering the lost boy, seems lifted directly from James Joyce’s wonderful last scene in “The Dead” with Gretta Conroy mourning the young Michael Furey. All that is missing is “snow (was) general all over Ireland”.
The Children Act is a flawed gem. It is worth seeing for the magnetic performance by Emma Thompson as the icy Judge Maye struggling with the first cracks in her rigid persona. In fact, there are no weak performances in this film. Jason Watkins, as Maye’s much put-upon assistant, is particularly good. The problem is with the story, which seems to change direction half way through and finally delivers a very different film from that promised at the start.