Following in the footsteps of ON CHESIL BEACH earlier this year, Ian McEwan has turned another of his novels into a screenplay with THE CHILDREN ACT. Emma Thompson stars as Fiona, a High Court judge married to her job – much to the chagrin of her husband (played by Stanley Tucci).
Whilst her marriage hangs in the balance, Fiona must rule on whether the parents of a 17-year-old with leukaemia (played by Fionn Whitehead) can refuse a life-saving blood transfusion on the grounds of being Jehovah’s Witnesses.
This premise would be more than enough to carry a whole film. The courtroom scenes are all morally challenging and carefully crafted, with each side presented fairly rather than on a “good vs. evil” basis. Richard Eyre’s direction is instantly simple yet effective, keeping Fiona’s back to the audience for most of the first scene, to show her disconnection from anything but work. And the dialogue is often surprisingly wry, with solid comic relief for W1A’s Jason Watkins as Fiona’s assistant (in response to journalists crowding outside the building: “I think you’ll be fine going out the usual way”).
Yet as readers of the source material will already know, the narrative ends up going in an unusual direction. The story that unfolds is surprising and arguably, like its author’s recent comments on the “MeToo” movement, problematic. But its unpredictability is admittedly transfixing.
This is largely due to the performances, which often cover up the script’s weaker spots. Fiona’s husband risks coming off as a self-righteous jerk, yet Tucci deploys the same natural charm he showed as Meryl Streep’s husband in 2009’s JULIE & JULIA. Whitehead often seems over-the-top or even creepy as the young Jehovah’s Witness, but his performance is confident enough to seem purposeful, as if those traits exemplify his character’s indoctrination.
And then there’s Emma Thompson, without whom this film might have been an ambitious failure. Thompson is one of the best in her field and this may be her finest performance to date. Her mannerisms are mostly restrained, reflecting Fiona’s professionalism. But her eyes often tell a different story, reflecting her inner conflicts.
When a moment comes for those conflicts to finally spill out, Thompson unleashes a powerful screen-sob, rivalling her iconic cry in 2003’s LOVE ACTUALLY. It’s this moment that pushes the film from captivating to genuinely moving (even if it follows a slightly unconvincing concert sequence).
THE CHILDREN ACT is a beguiling if imperfect film, but thanks to Thompson, the verdict is ultimately in its favour.