Film Review: The Children Act

An impressively acted but uncompelling film about a family court judge in the U.K. who grapples with her faltering marriage and the impact of her legal decisions on a young boy—and ultimately herself.
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Perhaps I’m suffering from compassion fatigue, but no matter how hard I tried (and I did, really and truly), I couldn’t muster any serious empathy for Fiona Maye (Emma Thompson), a high-powered family court judge who has to make life-and-death decisions (most of which are no-brainers for any reasonable person). At the same time, her husband Jack (Stanley Tucci) has announced he’d like to have an extramarital affair with a particular young woman, though he has every intention of returning to Fiona.

It’s his last-ditch sexual fling, he explains, arguing that Fiona has grown passion-free altogether too wrapped up in her cases and career to care one way or the other. Arguably, he has a point. Still, asking for her stamp of approval strains credulity. On second thought, if she okayed his proposal (and that might be the sensible thing to do), problem solved. Also, no movie.

Adapted for the screen by Ian McEwan from his 2014 novel and directed by Richard Eyre, who helmed Irisand Notes of a Scandal (two subtle and moving films),The Children Act, referencing a 1989 U.K. child-welfare law,feels manufactured, certainly more so on the screen than in the book.

Nonetheless, the picture has its rubbernecking appeal, watching it unfold to see what happens next given its contrived premise. It’s also fun to watch highly educated, successful people (Jack is a professor of ancient history) at work and at home—in this instance a spacious, comfortable refuge that proclaims low-key affluence (credit to production designer Peter Francis). There are the book-lined walls, Persian rugs and a grand piano. Fiona is an accomplished pianist, too. Talk about aspirational!

Like many of McEwan’s novels, The Children Act consists in large measure of the protagonist’s introspective journey. Transferring it to the screen is therefore challenging. Several of his earlier adaptations have succeeded, most notably (and recently) On Chesil Beach. What’s missing in McEwan’s Children is Fiona’s private motivation, which could account (at least in part) for her otherwise incomprehensible actions.

For example, in the novel it’s clear that Jack’s proposition is devastating to Fiona not because she’s wildly in love with him—though she once was, and the memory is haunting. His breach, rather, shatters her stability, identity and sense of place in the world. She is suddenly forced to question her choices, including her decision not to have a child. Jack and Fiona spend many weekends playing host to his very young nieces and nephews. They have a designated guest room overflowing with stuffed animals and other toys.

Fiona is indisputably committed to her time-consuming, intellectually demanding career—she’s engrossed by the moral and ethical legal twists and turns it provides—but now in the throes of a major crisis she hurls herself into it with even greater fervor as a way to focus her attention and block out the intrusive pain. This connective tissue is missing from the film. We know Fiona is troubled, but that’s about it. Her behavior doesn’t add up.

Her most recent case centers on a 17-year-old leukemia patient whose parents, committed to the teachings of Jehovah’s Witnesses, forbid the hospital from administering blood transfusions that (in conjunction with chemotherapy) would save their son’s life. Transfused blood is viewed as unclean and a violation of God’s will. The doctors present their case; the parents (convincingly played by Ben Chaplin and Eileen Walsh) present theirs, insisting that their son fully shares their religious convictions.

Fiona decides to visit the young boy in question, Adam Henry (Fionn Whitehead of Dunkirk), lying in a hospital bed, to see how he feels about all of it, knowing it’s an unprecedented step on her part (in fact, virtually inconceivable). As it turns out, Adam is a bright, charming, even flirtatious youngster who spars with the judge on judicial and religious matters, making it clear he is not being coerced by his parents or the church elders. He impresses Fiona with his sharp intelligence and artistic sensibility, especially his love of poetry and music. Guitar in hand, he strums away while the two of them sing a duet, “Down by the Salley Gardens,” a sentimental folk song with a poem by Yeats. Nurses and social workers silently observe the performance. This moment rendered me slack-jawed.

As expected (no spoiler here), Fiona rules on the side of the doctors. Adam receives his treatments, including the transfusions, and recovers. It’s a transforming experience for him. He’s thrilled to be alive and looking forward to his future. He’s beginning to question his faith. He’s also fallen in love with Fiona. After all, she’s given him new life, literally and metaphorically. In all probability she’s the first woman who has expressed any interest in him. He writes, calls and trails after her, at one point traveling from London to Newcastle, where she’s attending a legal gathering. Finally, he suggests moving in with her as a non-paying lodger who will earn his keep by doing chores around the house.

She knows she’s aroused feelings in him that she had no business arousing. In the novel there is some reciprocity of feeling and that makes for a more complex—yes, emotionally compelling—scenario. Onscreen she’s dismissive, even cruel. Adam is still an inexperienced child and she has unwittingly exploited him. Painful consequences follow.

The climactic scene takes place during a Christmas concert in which Fiona is performing. Throughout much of the film, she rehearses the program with her friend (Anthony Calf), a High Court barrister. Music plays a central role in this film, and that works well. Less successful is the melodrama that has been concocted to take place at the aforementioned recital. Fiona receives bad news before the performance, struggles through most of it and finally has a public meltdown. It’s just plain false. This is a steely, private British woman. It would never happen.

That said, Thompson cuts a highly intelligent, empowered figure whose silent moments are evocative of thoughts unvoiced. Whitehead as a young boy on the cusp of adulthood struggling with God, mortality and overactive hormones is impactful, too. And in a small supporting role, Tucci is as much a witless sad sack as he is a bastard.

The acting is not the problem. It rarely is. And, within parameters, the movie is not dull. Just don’t expect to feel much short of guilt in response to your own apathy.