Film Review – The Children Act

Directed: Richard Eyre

Writer: Ian McEwan

Starring: Emma Thompson, Stanley Tucci, Ben Chaplin

Tagline: “We all make choices. Hers make history.”

Trivia: The production was allowed to film at the entrance and in the foyer of the actual Royal Court of Justice in London. This is the only movie in recent times that got permission to do so.

I’m a HUGE fan of Emma Thompson and in my book she is infallible. Add to it Stanley Tucci, it would always be a good reason to watch a movie.

In The Children Act Emma Thompson plays Fiona Maye who is a High Court judge in the midst of a marital crisis.

Her husband (Stanley Tucci) has announced he intends to have an affair. At the same time she has to decide whether 17-year-old Jehovah’s Witness Adam (Fionn Whitehead) should be forced into having a life-saving blood transfusion.

Though it has all the elements of a great movie, somehow I wasn’t moved by it. It certainly gave “food for thought”, but I wasn’t emotionally involved with the characters.

I could logically understand each one of them, but I couldn’t be engaged with them. And maybe that was the purpose of this movie.

Like Fiona Maye says “it is a matter of the Law not Morals” when she makes her verdict on the difficult cases that are in front of her. But is that a way to live a life?

In this graceful drama we are treated to some refreshing material featuring complex humans at life-defining crossroads, forced to make choices that directly clash with the set of beliefs they had thus far lived by.

The Children Act delivers a sensitive, thoughtful drama about complicated issues, and is another reminder, if one were needed, of the subtlety and skill of Emma Thompson’s extraordinary talent.

I would go and see Emma Thompson in anything; but this specific movie has several cinematic problems, that even her (and the other actors) brilliant performance cannot save.

The movie is adapted by Ian McEwan from his 2014 novel and smoothly directed by Richard Eyre. Adapting a novel into a movie is always a risky transition, especially novels of Ian McEwan where what he writes with such careful intensity on the page can feel airless and oddly artificial onscreen.

There is the risk that the characters are somehow obeying orders, under the terms of a moral and emotional scheme, rather than being propelled by the thrust of their inward selves. I had the feeling the same thing happens in The Children Act and I wonder if this was done intentionally.

The result is that The Children Act, feels somewhat stage-bound.

It is a showcase for strong performances, especially by Emma Thompson and Fionn Whitehead, and long dialogue scenes chewing over meaty issues (morality versus law), but lacks a cinematic and emotional vitality to demand its place on the big screen.

As a filmmaker, Richard Eyre is reserved and empathetic, and the competing arguments are complex but compelling. But it never catches fire at any point either narratively or cinematically — the drama somewhat dried out.

The relationship between Fiona and Jack (Stanley Tucci) also feels underpowered. We are given very little sense of their history — a wordless flashback to happier times doesn’t do much to help — or dynamics, so there is little to invest in.

None of the above means that you should miss The Children Act. On the contrary, it’s worth seeing precisely for the heat of the arguments that you can enjoy after the screening and, above all, for Emma Thompson.

Verdict – it’s a 3.5/5 Stars in my book

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