'The Children Act' Review: Emma Thompson Shines in Ian McEwan Adaptation Directed by Richard Eyre
Starring Emma Thompson, Stanley Tucci, Fionn Whitehead
Published Sep 12, 2018The world did not need another adaption of an Ian McEwan novel (Atonement, On Chesil Beach), nor another sentimental movie about upper class Brits. Yet, that didn't stop McEwan (who adapted his 2014 novel) and director Richard Eyre from making The Children Act.
Set in London, the drama details judge Fiona Maye (Emma Thompson) as she presides over family law cases. In the beginning, she rules to separate a conjoined set of twins, resulting in one of their deaths. After this, she returns to her flat where her husband Jack (Stanley Tucci) politely requests to have an affair — it's been over 11 months since the last time they had sex, he informs her with ridiculous equanimity.
With this affair subplot, the principal action begins when Maye is required to rule on a case involving a Jehovah's Witness boy of 17 (Fionn Whitehead). Adam refuses to undergo a life-saving treatment for his leukemia, due to his religion's edicts.
These early scenes showcase the talent of the supporting cast, especially the punchability of Jack as he earnestly, caringly decides that the affair is what's best for both his wife and him.
The real chemistry, though, is between Fiona and Adam. It is kept in the periphery, to an extent, until the end of the movie when the two kiss. But Thompson manages to show the odd spark between the two early on, when her character visits Adam in the hospital.
At first, she's unflappable. She attempts to ascertain his understanding of the principles he wants to die for, if he can appreciate them — and the performance Thompson gives is equally pristine. But it's when she notices an old, well-worn guitar at the foot of Adam's hospital bed the sparks start flying.
Adam plays her a song, but fumbles. Fiona, surprisingly, corrects him — he plays the wrong chord. Then in a sort of oddly rapturous moment, given the hospital Adam's in, their age difference, and the tone of the movie, she sings the song that the strings Adam plays accompanies. A Yeats ballad, if you were wondering.
All this occurs early in the film, with a good chunk of the middle act showing Fiona slowly deteriorate because of her husband. She becomes on edge, angry. But the viewer is never hit over the head with this, it's obvious and yet very British.
As a viewer, you are left with the same sense of longing Adam has when he's first seen in the hospital bed — of questioning why you do the things you do every day. Seeing Thompson's performance — which is The Children Act's highlight — as she takes her character from a high-powered judge to a confused, angry woman is especially impactful.