The Children Act, released in the UK last week, is a film that boasts a masterful central performance by actress Emma Thompson and manages to be both persuasively realistic and also melodramatically unrealistic at the same time. There are moments during the film where cinema audiences will be intrigued by the minute details of the High Court and other moments where the film will only elicit exasperated eye rolling due to its utter preposterous dialogue.
The film, directed by Richard Eyre and adapted for screen by Ian McEwan based on his novel of the same name, tells the story of High Court Judge, Fiona Maye (Emma Thompson) whose marriage to husband Jack (Stanley Tucci) is failing. While struggling with the crisis in her personal life Fiona is asked to judge a case brought before her involving Adam (Fionn Whitehead) a 17-year-old boy who is refusing a life-saving blood transfusion on religious grounds.
On one side of the case a hospital argues that Adam should be given the blood he so desperately needs to prevent him suffering a long and painful death. On the other side Adam’s parents and guardian argue that a blood transfusion is against his wishes and he is an exceptional young man, months away from adulthood and so should be able to decide his own fate. Fiona, in an unusual decision, decides to visit Adam herself in hospital in order to question him and this single visit leads to an obsessive connection between the two for the rest of the film.
Ian McEwan has always been interested in intense connections between unlikely bystanders or strangers and he is especially intrigued by the idea of obsessive love. Many of his novels involve some sort of obsessive behaviour such as Jed Parry in Enduring Love or the character of Briony in Atonement. But in The Children Act this obsessive behaviour feels oddly out of place from the rest of the story. The case itself is compelling enough without the added storyline of Adam’s obsession with Fiona. Not simply because there is a life or death decision at the centre of it, but because it questions the ability of parents to make choices for their children and asks when courts should be allowed to intercede in the care of those children. The film also poses the question what role do children have in deciding their own fate?
The great institutionalised authorities have also always fascinated Ian McEwan and in The Children Act, he gives the audience of glimpse in to both the UK legal system and the NHS. The most interesting parts of the film are focused on Fiona‘s judgements and the inner workings of the world of the High Court, the pomp and ceremony of the outfits, the multitasking of Fiona’s clerk and the different legal factions at a Lincoln’s Inn Christmas party. Small scenes add colour to the experience of a high profile law case, such as the intense commotion of journalists and cameras outside the court or the mounds of paperwork that Fiona is frequently filing through in order to digest multiple complicated facts in order to make a judgement.
Andrew Dunn does a great job with the cinematography with lots of shots of interior rooms, people walking through doors and framed by windows to emphasise the suffocating life of court and the slow destruction of Fiona’s marriage. London is alternately shot in wide landscapes and through the small courtyards and the twisting busy streets of Lincoln’s Inn. It is perhaps not so much big screen cinematography as small screen filming and The Children Act often feels more like a BBC TV drama than a feature film.
Emma Thompson gives a completely believable performance as Fiona, routinely juggling sensitive and complicated cases like Adam’s. She carefully listens to each argument, commanding respect and displaying an intelligent authority over everyone in the court room. There is a small but insightful scene in the second half of the film in which Fiona confidently walks in to a room filled with men at a formal dinner emphasising that she has been a woman working in a man’s world for much of her career. She is a person who is highly competent and very qualified at her job, in sharp contrast to her marriage which is falling apart around her and which she is clearly completely unsure how to repair.
It is nice to see a middle-aged couple on screen and The Children Act is clever in portraying a gender role reversal in a long-term marriage. Instead of the husband neglecting his wife for his career, in this film it is the opposite with Fiona prioritising her cases as Jack pleads with her to reconnect with him. Stanley Tucci, is completely believable as Fiona’s husband but is woefully underused and we suspect the film would have been better had it given both Thompson and Tucci more screen time together.
Unfortunately too much story and screen time is given to the character of Adam. The less interesting aspects of the film are Adam’s emotions and doubts and the film stalls every time he’s on screen. Adam is supposed to be a brilliant, impressive beautiful boy, exhibiting an intellectual maturity well beyond his years and there is simply no sign of this brilliance anywhere in the script. It may be Fionn Whitehead’s performance or the lines of dialogue he was given, but Adam appears very naive and childlike, completely destroying the argument that he should be able to make the decision about whether he lives or dies.
After meeting Fiona, Adam’s obsessive behaviour borders on stalking and his attempts to write poetry feel closer to teenage angst than any sort of insightful artistic endeavour. It is this part of the plot that lets the film down, Adam is simply not a believable enough character and his connection with Fiona feels contrived. The dialogue between them is bewildering and corny. It is this central relationship that ensures that The Children Act is a movie filled with compelling glimpses into the inner world of the highest court of the land but is also plagued by a highly unrealistic and melodramatic central narrative.
The Children Act is now on general release in UK cinemas.