A film like The Children Act aspires to loftier purposes, powered by award-worthy performances and subjects which hit us where it hurts. Even the title alone could be taken two different ways – is it a name reference to the UK’s Children Act 1989, or is it a three-word complete sentence concerning the behavior of the film’s occupants? It’s a film with a lot to say, yet feels like a feature-length expansion of one of the stories from Love Actually in that it’s emotionally touching, but ultimately feels like we’re merely skating over the surface.
Emma Thompson serves as our touchstone throughout, anchoring the film as a UK judge specializing in family law. Mrs. Justice Fiona Maye is smart and battle-hardened; she should be after years of presiding over cases involving the direst of circumstances and the most horrid of offenders. She dispenses her judgments with a fair and compassionate eye toward all, even if some of these decisions are heartbreaking and not what the families might want to hear.
As films like this go, she’s given a case which could break her, which arrives in the form of Kevin (Ben Chaplin) and Naomi Henry (Eileen Walsh), a Jehovah’s Witness family denying treatment due to religious beliefs. In refusing a blood transfusion which could save their son Adam’s (Fionn Whitehead) life, a hospital’s medical staff has brought this issue before Fiona. Adam himself is sticking with his religion’s principles, that blood is sacred and should not be tainted with another’s.
Fiona’s dedication to her work has isolated her from her husband Jack (Stanley Tucci), whose suggestions for shared activities go ignored or brushed off. Skulking in a sea of neglect, he announces he’s going to have an affair, preferring to be honest instead of sneaking around behind her back. Of course, Fiona suddenly seems to arise from her work-induced stupor, a glint coming to her job-deadened eyes as she angrily warns him not to do so.
And all of this happens in the first twenty minutes.
With all of this – a wayward husband, a leukemia-stricken young man who counters his joie de vivre with seemingly martyr-like fervor, a job which doesn’t stop – Fiona’s crumbling, which Emma Thompson emotes subtly, giving her all to Fiona. Thompson reminds us why she’s one of the best actors currently working with a gravely nuanced and soulful performance; Ian McEwan’s script (based on his own novel) and Richard Eyre’s keen direction often make us rely on her body language and expressions more than outright dialogue. She’s a joy to watch in this film, even if her character’s circumstances would make others fall to their knees in despair.
Fiona makes the decision to go see Adam in the hospital to make sure he knows what he’s doing, which Adam misinterprets as a gesture of love rather than procedure. Doe-eyed and eager, Fionn Whitehead gives Adam a teenager’s heart and soul which finds itself swerving into religious-based zeal, an internal struggle which Whitehead skillfully manifests. There’s a lovely awkwardness he imparts to Adam, a combination of a shy admiration and mania bubbling just below his skin; we don’t know why he can’t see how the real world works until it’s too late, when everything he does is explained in a dashed yet predictable fashion.
“Predictable” is how Ian McEwan’s script could be described; this weird love triangle of sorts is almost the kind of thing you’d find in the aforementioned Love Actually, dispersed among other colorful stories. The failing marriage suddenly injected with life from an unexpected source, an awkward kiss, the stereotypical “emotional run after a musical performance” scene, and the pat denouement which ties things up with everyone getting their desired ends – it’s all here. The only attribute it doesn’t have is Love Actually’s writer Richard Curtis popping in little bits of playfulness here and there to make everything saccharine.
McEwan’s script doesn’t feel like committing fully one way or the other until the final hand is played; even then, it’s couched in a dubious, “will she or won’t she” moment. Thankfully, director Richard Eyre allows room for the actors to breathe into their spaces, intimating more through action than speech. Not every question is answered; not every plot is overexposed or given away. Instead, he gives the film a clipped, natural brevity instead of drawing scenes out for drama. The ethic with which Eyre seems to have worked is the same which drives Fiona – do the job and let it pass.
The obvious parallels – and anti-parallels – between Fiona’s home and work lives speak for themselves: tend to that which you find important, principles or religion be damned. She is so concerned with keeping a young boy alive, she forgets to do the same for her own marriage. Fiona’s inner strength is all at once her salvation and damnation; in trying to put on a brave face to sally forth, she doesn’t ask for help or a hand to hold, thereby losing her grip and allowing everything – her marriage, her Christmas piano recital, even Adam himself – to slip away.
We’re not burdened with histrionics thanks to Eyre’s steady hand on the tiller. Another director might well have given into overdone drama for a more heightened sensory experience. Instead, it’s a calming look inside a woman wanting so much to do the right thing for others but not herself. Even though the script may not be as edifying or satisfying as one would want, the film’s performances and assured direction make The Children Act excellent viewing, with Emma Thompson leading the way.
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