Film Review: The Children Act

Ian McEwan’s 2014 novel is filmed by stage, screen and TV director Richard Eyre, and the result is a slightly flawed drama with weighty themes underpinned by some fine work from stars Emma Thompson and Stanley Tucci.

McEwan’s books have been turned into movies before, with his Enduring Love and Atonement adapted by others for the screen and On Chesil Beach (only a few months ago) and this one scripted by the now-70-year-old man himself, and all have their problems.

Like Chesil, this sets up a powerful premise, alters and simplifies the book, and then doesn’t quite know how and where to end it. But as McEwan himself wrote the scripts for both films, chances are no one dared challenge him.

Fiona Maye (Emma) is a judge in the High Court of Justice of England and Wales, and her huge and demanding workload means that she has little time for her longtime husband Jack (Stanley). When he’s finally fed up (in that inimitable Tucci fashion), he announces that he wants to have an affair with his colleague, and Fiona is stunned and soon winds up alone as he leaves the house for some days to do the inevitable.

At the same time, Fiona (who specialises in publicity-friendly, morally thorny cases) becomes involved in the situation surrounding 17 year old Adam Henry (Fionn Whitehead from Dunkirk), a lad suffering from leukemia whose parents (Eileen Walsh and Ben Chaplin) are Jehovah’s Witnesses. They believe that a blood transfusion, which might be necessary during treatment, is against Biblical principles, and they’re willing to let their son die rather than offend their God.

Fiona, wondering if the teen agrees with his parents (and surely feeling nostalgic and hurt in the absence of Jack), goes to the hospital and meets Adam, and the two discuss the dangers with a little very Emma-Thompson-esque humour and a quick guitar performance of Down By The Salley Gardens. It’s a beautifully written and played scene, and tough enough to see you past some of the unsatisfactory plotting yet to come.

Interestingly, this film’s trailer is distinctly misleading. While that would lead you to believe that the whole narrative culminates with Fiona’s final ruling, which you’d assume would be announced in the last ten minutes or so, this actually happens about halfway through, leaving room for Fiona and Jack to squabble, Adam to take a turn reminiscent of McEwan’s Enduring Love and the plot to start wobbling.

Despite all this, however, the players are excellent, with Tucci at his very best and Thompson delivering one of her greatest performances yet – which, in a career like hers, is really saying something.

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