The Children Act is a dour and chiefly British release anchored by an incredibly powerful performance by Emma Thompson. In it, she plays a well-admired and respected judge who’s been given a case that challenges all her preconceptions of what is just and moral and whether a child’s dignity outweighs doing what is right. The case is that of a young Jehovah ’s Witness boy—played by Fionn Whitehead—who requires a blood transfusion, and it’s against his and his parents’ wishes, as a matter of faith, to go through with the procedure. This launches an intensive character study about the stately judge and an examination of her own deteriorating marriage, which is in shambles due to what we perceive to be her lack of having a child.
This is the second film of the year adapted from an Ian McEwan novel, joining Chesil Beach in a two-part renaissance of one of the finer British authors. The book has also been adapted by McEwan, and it encounters the usual problems this entails. Here, we have an author who knows books writing a movie, and so the translation is as literal and as bookish as they come. It is one of the more common issues with a work of translation, finding that there’s minimal reason to have made into film, as the story inspires no action to be of more benefit on the screen than on the page. We can look at this as a broader movie issue now, where what is filmic is of utmost importance in trying to enliven something with an actor. The story does remain great and truly literary, but the problem with a poor translation is that you can fix a badly acted scene with infinite takes to make it right, but a piece that doesn’t play to the strengths of the screen can only be improved through rewrites. With this, it seems important to suggest a level of distance between the author and their primary text, allowing someone who’s well-versed in films handle this side of the coin.
The great beauty of The Children Act is that it remains a rueful and tightly plotted literary story. There’s so much for Thompson to chew on, and she does some of the best acting work of the year, expressing with tremendous feeling, to the place where we will always know what she means. She renders everyone around her to be complimentary advocates to the immense strength of her own performance.
What sinks in with the material is this great moral dilemma of faith and righteousness. She has two very big problems in her life. There is the case of the boy, which questions her personal perspectives on the soundness of judgment. Then there is her husband, played by a willful and seemingly admiring Stanley Tucci, who acts out a great portrayal of a husband left to his own devices with a wife whose profession supersedes his personal desires. The great flip here, having the husband on the outs and desperate for affection, from a woman who’s more professionally occupied and does not have the wherewithal for romance, is a great twist to our expectations of how these things always go the other way. Within moments of the opening, he’s pronounced his desire to have an affair, and her restrained reaction and indifference to eleven months of sexual impotence says everything we’d ever need to know about the couple. It does not always succeed, especially in convincing us of anything like the idea that she’s childless is any detriment to personal responsibilities, but it works effectively once tied into her new relationship with the boy. Despite the age gap, they experience another kind of romance of ideals. We’re asked how a Yeats poem is beautiful? Is something valuable only because we say it is?
The Children Act might run dour and slow, but it’s filled with a few exceptional performances from its key players. Occasionally it breaks out into big clinical white spaces that hold space for cinematic thoughts. But it is otherwise as restrained as Thompson’s character’s marriage, sterile and lost inside the pages of a book. The Children Act’s finest moments allow deep-seated explorations of beliefs, and if it were given more to do in any cinematic sense, the potential could’ve been far greater.