Richard Eyre’s latest film, ‘The Children Act’, is an interesting project for the esteemed director; a story of a renowned judge and her battle with hard-hitting cases and her dilapidating marriage. It’s part-drama and part-romance, a genre fusion that Eyre is familiar with, which is why it’s frustrating to see his court-room drama crumble away so easily after such a promising opening act.
Emma Thompson is Fiona Maye, a hard-headed, sophisticated, and by-the-book judge who, with her marriage with Stanley Tucci’s Jack slowly crumbling before her, must juggle morality with the law in her decision to approve a blood transfusion for a young Jehovah’s Witness (Fionn Whitehead) who refuses the procedure on religious principle. It’s a heavy topic, but one that warrants its own story; a tale adapted for the screen by Ian McEwan, the author of the source material himself.
The issue at hand is a controversial case, but both McEwan and Eyre are cautious and delicate enough to objectively depict both sides of the debate with no sense of authorial bias, with both sides of the coin being shown with no sign of villainy. Such objectivity is achieved through Thompson’s performance that remains both professional and diligent, with her trademark charm channelling a true sense of moral curiosity about the young boy and his welfare. As the film progresses her character develops in a way that is dependant on her ability to shift between professionalism and her moral obligation as a human being, a juxtaposition that Thompson handles with a great deal of maturity; which is to be expected of course. Tucci, although we don’t see enough of him, is just as fascinating as his co-star, whose scarce appearances throughout the film add an element of banality to the proceedings. His dry exchanges with his wife (“I think I want an affair”) not only perfectly capture the nature of their exhausted relationship, but also showcase his hopelessness as a character; a hopeless romantic who is secondary to his wife’s chaotic professional lifestyle. This is a film that would sink without the duality between the pair, but thankfully their combined on-screen presence maintains the film’s buoyancy.
Where the film does start to sink, however, is with its inability to coherently juggle between the main story of the case itself and the additional sub-plot of Fiona and Whitehead’s Adam’s questionable relationship. What starts as a hard-hitting court-room drama soon plays out as a messy hybridisation of ‘The Graduate’ and ‘The King of Comedy’, a surreal sub-plot that depicts Adam’s irrational romantic and spiritual fascination with the older Fiona – a fascination spurred by his ever-diminishing faith. It feels bizarrely out of place and doesn’t hit the emotional heights that it intends to, culminating in an underwhelming denouement that takes away from the film’s stunning first half.
At its best, ‘The Children Act’ is a fascinating insight into the life of a troubled judge whose marriage is incessantly burdened by her relentless work ethic. But at its most, it’s a convoluted and bizarre story of a young man’s quest for romantic and spiritual self-discovery that is as cliché and as convoluted as it sounds.
Directed by: Richard Eyre
Starring: Emma Thompson, Stanley Tucci, Fionn Whitehead