Director: Richard Eyre
Screenplay: Ian McEwan
Starring: Emma Thompson, Stanley Tucci, Fionn Whitehead, Ben Chaplin, Eileen Walsh, Jason Watkins
Runtime: 105 Minutes
The Children Act is not only the second film in as many months to delve into the nature of Jehovah's Witnesses and their belief system in the modern world, but also the third Ian McEwan adaptation (film or otherwise) to make it to screens this year alone, and The Children Act pretty much lives and dies by the virtue of being strapped into the McEwan mould.
That being that his modern-day texts mostly appear to concern middle class individuals in high-end occupations such as academics, surgery or (in this case) judges. Posh people problems with characters who rarely feels as real or relatable as they should do, all with a pinch of alienation from any working-class perspectives.
Here, the focus turns to a court case preceded over by the Honourable Mrs Justice Maye DBE (Emma Thompson), involving teenage boy Adam Henry (Fionn Whitehead) who is refusing a blood transfusion on religious principle. All the while, Fiona Maye’s marriage life appears to be crumbling at the seams as Stanley Tucci as husband Jack Maye decides he wants to have an affair, following a gradual breakdown emotional and physical contact between the two.
It’s all rather compelling stuff, and the onslaught of McEwan’s dialogue – here acting as screenwriter – is handled by Richard Eyre’s methodically paced direction and calming sense of staging. Both have worked together in the past on original work The Ploughman's Lunch, and they’re a genuinely excellent double act here too.
At the centre of this is the dynamic double act of Thompson and Tucci. Thompson is one of the great actors of a generation, and she holds the screen with the same emotional weight and pain as her best roles, all while meeting the expectation of her writer character as a motormouthed professional. When Emma Thompson cries, its one of the most believable and heart-breaking things in cinema.
Tucci is strong in a role that goes from being at least sympathetic to something more unreasonable and handles the transition beautifully. Fionn Whitehead, last seen fighting for his like on the beaches of Dunkirk, here takes on a different fight and he manages to capture the strange moods of his character well enough, even if teetering a little too far into flat lunacy at points when there should probably be more faint delirium.
The core plot concerning the court cast and the fight for the right to die by the Henry’s parents, played capably by Ben Chaplin and Eileen Walsh in underused roles, is an admittedly fascinating dissection of a difficult subject matter as the tabloids rage outside. Becoming a battle for human rights in the grand scheme of things as science and fact collide with faith and scripture, breaching the borderline into that whole other subgenre of courtroom drama.
But all of this only takes up the first half, or at least the first two acts, of the film. Because the other thing that McEwan keeps obnoxiously coming back to is his characters being involved with or succumbing to different forms of obsessive fantasies.
The entire backend gives way to a meandering and overlong third act that diverges into another development that people who have seen or read other McEwan works will know all too well without giving away much regarding the conclusion of the fictitious case.
Everything becomes muddied on both structural and thematic terms, as it seems to take uncomfortable stabs at the fact that Fiona doesn’t have (or can’t have) children and that somehow being derogatory to her psychological state. It just gets confusing as to what it’s even trying to say anymore regarding both plot strands other than to go back over old ground already explored in McEwan’s past work.
Is The Children Act anti-faith? It’s hard to say, let alone discern any of what it’s tried to discuss come the final scenes where the grand deduction leaves puzzled looks as opposed to the wide-eyed response to epiphany. It’s a default piece of McEwan fiction, to take or leave on those parameters, but it’s compelling in small bouts and Thompson delivers on top form.