The Children Act
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