As the title suggests, The Children Act is a bill introduced in 1989 to reform British law relating to minors. Its intent is to ensure that all children are safeguarded and that their welfare should be the overriding concern of the courts, while taking into account the child’s wishes, including the harm a child may have suffered or is likely to suffer.
It’s not altogether necessary for audiences to know the legalities stated within the bill, but in order to understand the conflicts fictional High Court Judge Fiona Maye (Emma Thompson) has to face in the new Richard Eyre directed drama The Children Act, a general awareness helps. At the very least, it should give insight into the decisions she has to regularly make, and why.
Based on the novel of the same name and adapted to the screen by its author, Ian McEwan, when the film begins, Fiona is having to rule on the difficult case of conjoined ‘Siamese’ twins. If she rules in favor of the hospital that insists on operating, one child will live, the other will die. On moral grounds, the parents are refusing an operation. “The logic of the evil is clear,” Fiona begins, and proceeds to make her ruling, concluding with, “The court is a court of law, not morals.” An operation will proceed.
But before the judge has time to fully breathe or to take in how her decision was reported in the press – “I gave instructions to slaughter a baby,” she dryly states while glancing over the emotional headlines that sell Britain’s tabloids – she is immediately faced with a new and equally difficult case. A 17-year-old boy, Adam Henry (Fionn Whitehead) has leukemia. The doctors want a blood transfusion. But the boy’s parents are Jehovah’s Witnesses. “The soul, the life is in the blood,” they have heard preached in their church. “It’s God’s and it belongs to him.”
In stark detail, Professor Rodney Carter (Nicholas Jones) explains what will happen to the boy if he’s left unattended by the doctors. “One sure thing is that it’ll be a horrifying death,” the professor tells the court, adding once the judge is informed that it’s also the boy’s wish he be left untreated, “His views are his parent’s views.” But the boy’s parents cannot be swayed. “God’s word has to be obeyed,” the father (Ben Chaplin) insists.
The problem for the Honorable Mrs. Justice Maye is clear, even if the road to make her decision is not: should the hospitable be allowed to make a transfusion and go against the wishes of the parents based on their religion, or should the firmly held beliefs of the parents, including those of the boy himself, be adhered to?
Included in the film’s themes of parenting, the directness of the law and the authority of the courts, including its moral authority, there’s also a parallel story of love, infidelity, and the effects on a marriage when work for one of the partners becomes all consuming. Fiona’s husband, Jack (Stanley Tucci) openly declares he wants to have an affair with an associate at the college where he teaches. Fiona is forever working and has little time outside of the courts. When Jack leaves home, it’s for just a few days. His hope was that upon his return the two could talk about things and maybe save the marriage. After all, he still loves her and wants the relationship to work. But Fiona disregards him, forcing Jack to tell her, “I left this marriage two days. You left it years ago.”
Despite Tucci’s touching performance – his portrayal makes Jack an immensely likable and sympathetic character – Fiona’s private life conflicts never feel as interesting as her work. There’s fascination to be had when hearing the judge’s legal arguments, including the energetic swiftness with which the behind-the-scenes decisions are made and orders are given. But the story of a failing marriage gets in the way; it can’t compete. Plus, with only one flashback relating to earlier, happier times, unlike the novel, there’s a curious absence of depth explored in the relationship to warrant any major investment or concern on our part. Even more curious is that no one ever mentions that Jack is an American living in London. Perhaps a scene of how they met would have helped. The cultural difference alone might have added insight into their earlier mutual attraction.
Far more interesting is Fiona’s developing relationship with the young Jehovah’s Witness at the center of her case. Surprisingly, the judge’s ruling as to whether the hospital can administer a blood transfusion or not is only the conclusion of the first act. It’s the results of that decision and its after-effects that make the bulk of the film. “Poor kid,” remarks one of Fiona’s colleagues. “He’s lost Jehovah and found you.”
While author McEwan’s adaptation of his own work keeps to the overall narrative of the original, there are changes, and perhaps it’s his streamlining of certain events that make the film flawed, and Fiona and Jack’s failing relationship less interesting. In the book, Fiona changes the locks to their home when Jack temporarily leaves. In fact, when he later returns, she’s actually disappointed that he’s back, as if the expectation of being alone was something suddenly appealing. That might have made conflicts on the screen more interesting than always giving her husband the cold shoulder every time he wants to have a discussion, as she does here.
Plus, with a film so intelligent and grounded in reality, it’s odd that its eventual conclusion doesn’t work as well as you might expect, or hope. But if one thing is clear, even if you don’t fully believe in the outcome of events, you believe in Emma Thompson. She makes her Judge Fiona a powerful character, running the gamut of believable emotions, always hitting her target. Despite the film’s failings, Thompson never fails to keep you anything less than glued.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 105 Minutes