Film Mar­cus Berk­mann

THE CHIL­DREN ACT (12A)

The Oldie - - CONTENTS -

Re­mem­ber Love Ac­tu­ally? Of course you do: its man­i­fest hor­rors are im­printed on the me­mory of ev­ery Bri­ton of vot­ing age. But there’s one scene in the film that very nearly makes up for all the rest, and that’s Emma Thomp­son’s re­al­i­sa­tion, in her bed­room, lis­ten­ing to Joni Mitchell, that her hus­band is hav­ing an af­fair. It’s amaz­ingly sim­ple, pow­er­ful and ef­fec­tive – and, as such, doesn’t re­ally fit into the film at all.

Jump for­ward 15 years and Thomp­son, now in her late fifties, is a fam­ily court judge in The Chil­dren Act. She lives in cham­bers with her hus­band, Stan­ley Tucci, who comes in one day and an­nounces that he plans to have an af­fair. The sense of déjà vu is in­escapable. You al­most ex­pect to see Hugh Grant pass the win­dow, chas­ing Mar­tine Mccutcheon.

The Chil­dren Act is the lat­est of Ian Mcewan’s brief, skil­fully wrought nov­els to be adapted for the screen, and al­most cer­tainly not the last. Thomp­son’s judge is for­mi­da­bly hard-work­ing, pro­fes­sional and ef­fec­tive in her job: we see her giv­ing sev­eral judg­ments and we never doubt her ca­pa­bil­i­ties for a sec­ond. But her mar­riage is col­laps­ing and we re­alise that, some­where along the line, she has lost the abil­ity to live a nor­mal emo­tional life. Through­out the film peo­ple say, ‘Talk to me; tell me what you’re feel­ing.’ And she can’t. We see that the feel­ings are strong, some­times over­pow­er­ing, but ex­press­ing them has be­come im­pos­si­ble.

This is ob­vi­ously an in­ter­est­ing role for Thomp­son to play, be­cause she has spent film af­ter film ex­press­ing her feel­ings; it’s what she does. But at times you want to shout at the screen, ‘Pull your­self to­gether, you daft wo­man!’ (I am not, and I shall never be, any form of ther­a­pist.)

The main case in the film is that of a 17-year-old boy who has leukaemia but has re­fused life-sav­ing blood trans­fu­sions be­cause he’s a Je­ho­vah’s Wit­ness. Thomp­son goes to see him in hospi­tal and they get on fa­mously. There is a scene here in­volv­ing a gui­tar which teeters on the very edge of ghastly, stom­ach-churn­ing em­bar­rass­ment. Some­how, Thomp­son pulls it off, but it’s a close thing.

What will she de­cide? This part of the story is well-told and fas­ci­nat­ing, as all good court­room dra­mas tend to be. Af­ter the ver­dict is in, though, the film be­gins to drift. Why is Tucci, who brings his im­mense tal­ent to an al­most thank­less role, con­stantly flop­ping around like a wet week­end in Broad­stairs? Thomp­son seems to spend an in­or­di­nate amount of time putting on or tak­ing off shoes.

The fo­cus now changes to that of the 17-year-old boy, who is played by Fionn White­head, and who isn’t, I’m afraid, par­tic­u­larly good. I don’t be­lieve his di­a­logue and I don’t be­lieve the mouth that says it. The end of the film is ut­terly in­evitable and, ap­par­ently, pretty much what hap­pened in real life, as Mcewan took the story from an anec­dote he was told over din­ner.

Mcewan’s last script to be filmed, On Ch­e­sil Beach, was a small mas­ter­piece of plot­ting. This one seems less sure. Not that I can think of any way to make it bet­ter: it is what it is, as most films are. And Thomp­son is won­der­ful. This is a proper star per­for­mance: strong yet vul­ner­a­ble, sen­si­tive yet some­times ter­ri­fy­ingly mat­ter-of-fact, she’s in al­most ev­ery scene of the film, and you never grow tired of her. I also like the fact she’s not afraid to look her age – a rare and sur­pris­ingly beau­ti­ful thing.

A star ac­tu­ally: Emma Thomp­son in The Chil­dren Act

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