The Chil­dren Act

Pasatiempo - - ON THE COVER - The Chil­dren Act The Chil­dren Act, Dunkirk

At the U.S. Open a few weeks ago, an um­pire de­scended from his chair to en­cour­age a young ten­nis player, flout­ing con­ven­tion and caus­ing a stir. Some­thing like that hap­pens at the cen­ter of the in­trigu­ing but dis­ap­point­ing drama star­ring Emma Thomp­son as a British High Court judge who spe­cial­izes in fam­ily law.

Con­fronted with a case where a Je­ho­vah’s Wit­ness cou­ple (Ben Chap­lin and Eileen Walsh) is re­fus­ing a life-sav­ing blood trans­fu­sion for their leukemia-stricken sev­en­teen-year-old son, Jus­tice Fiona Maye (Thomp­son) calls a re­cess and takes the un­usual step of vis­it­ing the boy in his hospi­tal room to gauge his true feel­ings. Adam (Fionn White­head, )is pas­sion­ate and in­tel­li­gent in his de­fense of his re­li­gion’s stric­ture against blood mix­ing, but the judge isn’t con­vinced, and she rules in fa­vor of the trans­fu­sion.

Mean­while, on the do­mes­tic front, things are fray­ing. Fiona is a tightly but­toned worka­holic and only man­ages a few dis­tracted mum­bles when her hus­band, Jack (Stan­ley Tucci), tries to en­gage her in con­ver­sa­tion while she’s por­ing over a stack of court pa­pers. He gets her at­ten­tion, though, when he tells her he’s think­ing of hav­ing an af­fair. He still loves her, he says, but the in­ti­macy and fun have gone out of their mar­riage.

is adapted by Ian McEwan from his 2014 novel, and the ti­tle refers to a piece of 1989 leg­is­la­tion re­quir­ing the courts to make the wel­fare of chil­dren its para­mount con­sid­er­a­tion. And in­deed Adam does re­cover. But he has bonded with Fiona dur­ing her hospi­tal visit, and once back in the world and in­debted to her for his life, his devo­tion be­comes a prob­lem with un­com­fort­able ram­i­fi­ca­tions.

The story plays with the ten­sions be­tween ab­stract ra­tio­nal­ity and hu­man pas­sion, which are fas­ci­nat­ing as con­cepts, but un­der­cooked here as a dra­matic stew. The re­la­tion­ships are in­di­cated rather than plumbed. Jack and Fiona haven’t had sex in nearly a year, by his di­ary, but aside from one brief flash­back, we never get much sense of who they were when love was fresh and new. The re­la­tion­ship that de­vel­ops be­tween Fiona and Adam is even more fraught and com­pli­cated in the mo­ment, but McEwan and di­rec­tor Richard Eyre shy away from tak­ing us too deeply.

None of this can take away from the ex­cel­lent per­for­mances. Tucci does his best with the small change he’s given, but Thomp­son is mag­nif­i­cent in what she can con­vey with a crisp man­ner over­lay­ing emo­tions that run too deep for Fiona to fully grasp. She’s matched by White­head, who has some­thing of the young Jeremy Irons about him. He gives us youth­ful in­ten­sity and some­thing more trou­bling in equal mea­sure.

— Jonathan Richards

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