The Children Act is a story of choice and life, but neither is very clear cut. Emma Thompson is brilliant in her role and the supporting cast of Stanley Tucci and Fionn Whitehead is stellar. Now in theatres and on DirecTV Cinema.
There are situations where we are compelled to make a decision, sometimes for the benefit or even the safety of someone else. We might not understand why a decision is made and we never will. But the lasting impact of a decision can haunt us long after.
The central thesis of The Children Act is what grips the Honourable Mrs. Justice Fiona Maye DBE (Emma Thompson), a judge in the High Court of Justice of England and Whales. As the film opens, she is balancing multiple cases and a failing marriage to Jack (Stanley Tucci), a university professor.
Director Richard Eyre (Notes on a Scandal) paints a quietly troubled marriage as the underpinning to Fiona’s journey. There is an early scene in Ian McEwan’s script, adapted from his book by the same name, where Jack announces to Fiona that he’s planning to have an affair, but hasn’t done so yet. Fiona looks at him in disgust, not even seeing his pronouncement for what it actually was and with disgust, she kicks him to the curb.
This is the type of smart writing that the story embodies, even if it doesn’t completely work or support the character’s journeys. It is in the film’s second act, where Fiona has to sit in judgement of a sick boy. The trial is probably the most energetic aspect of the film, but it is not the most impassioned aspect. In this trial, a set of parents use their religious beliefs to convince their son, Adam (Dunkirk’s Fionn Whitehead) to refuse a blood transfusion.
In an unusual move, Fiona goes to Adam’s bedside to determine his state of mind and his desires. The film turns a bit awkward at this stage because her visit leaves Adam in a confused state, in part because he fell for her, a heavenly angel, but also because everything his parents taught him to respect has just gone out the window. He has a second chance at life, and now has to land on his own two feet while recovering his mind hooked on “Down by the Salley Gardens”:
Down by the salley gardens my love and I did meet;
She passed the salley gardens with little snow-white feet.
She bid me to take love easy, as the leaves grow on the tree;
But I, being young and foolish, with her would not agree.
In a field by the river my love and I did stand,
And on my leaning shoulder she laid her snow-white hand.
She bid me take life easy, as the grass grows on the weirs;
But I was young and foolish, and now am full of tears
~ William Butler Yeats
The poem is the centerpiece of the film, playing both sides of Fiona’s life with Jack and her reaction to Adam. Thompson is very composed, even as she argues with Tucci’s Jack. She is implacable. Tucci has a way blending into the background, almost being a chameleon. I have appreciated this aspect of his acting in the past and it comes in spades: he is tender here, and emotional, but it somehow comes off as trite against Thompson’s implacability. Dramatically, their dichotomy serves the needs of the film because it shows where her passions lie and her lack of emotion for the rest of her life summarily ends. That passion doesn’t extend to people and in the end, pushes Adam away when he tries to see her for advice, saying he has lots of questions.
Adam reminds her though that there are aspects to life greater than the black & white rule of law. Life is not so clear-cut and The Children Act gives hope for life eternal.
Now in theaters and on DirecTV Cinema, The Children Act is rated R.