Emma Thompson is magni icent as a high court judge but even she can’t save the day as Ian McEwan’s adaptation of his own novel turns out to be silly and predictable
The Children Act isn’t just the second film based on an Ian McEwan novel to be released inside four months, it’s the second consecutive film for which McEwan has adapted the screenplay himself – something he has hitherto done only occasionally during his prolific 40-year writing career. But while the first, On Chesil Beach, I thought was quite wonderful, the second feels like distinctly hard work, despite a wonderful central performance from its star, Emma Thompson.
It’s directed by Richard Eyre, who may have Notes On A Scandal and Iris among his film-making credits, but he is best known as a theatre director. And there’s a theatricality, a staginess to what unfolds here as experienced High Court judge Fiona Maye (Thompson) discovers that her long, childless marriage has fallen apart without her noticing.
‘I think I want to have an affair,’ announces her hitherto supportive husband (Stanley Tucci) in the living room of their comfortable Gray’s Inn flat, asking his wife if she can even remember the last time they made love. He leaves soon afterwards, but not before answering his own question. ‘It was 11 months 16 ago…’ And so her personal and professional worlds are plunged into crisis, albeit the sort of uptight, put-on-a-brave-face crisis that the professional classes specialise in.
With the distinctly dry ‘action’ switching between set-like courtrooms, her flat and the office where she is waited on by her devoted clerk (Jason Watkins), there’s an intimacy to proceedings that suggests if theatre weren’t its preferred home, then television just might be. But what makes it not just a feature film but a feature film worth catching (if you’re in a cerebral frame of mind) is the quality of Thompson’s performance.
Often an actress inclined to big performances, here she is the epitome of buttoneddown, emotional restraint, conveying more in a reproachful glance of those unhappy eyes than McEwan could in a page of dialogue.