Fiona Maye (Emma Thompson) is a revered albeit controversial justice in England, whose professional priorities override her relationship with husband Jack (Stanley Tucci). As she worries about Jack possibly leaving her for a younger woman, Fiona presides over a case involving a sick man, Adam (Dunkirk’s Fionn Whitehead). Adam has leukemia but his parents, who are Jehovah’s Witnesses, are refusing to allow the hospital to give him a blood transfusion. Fiona’s personal investment in the case leads her to visit Adam in the hospital. However, her growing fondness for the 17-year-old boy begins to breach her professional ethics.
The new drama from Richard Eyre (Notes on a Scandal) works best as an actors’ showcase. Emma Thompson, as the stiff although hyper-articulate Fiona, brings command and nuance to the role. It is riveting to watch the actor, as Fiona, ponder over the consequences of her legal actions (with the case) and her spontaneous decisions (to visit the ailing Adam). Whitehead is also superb as a budding young adult going through a religious dilemma.
But the problems of The Children Act belong primarily to screenwriter Ian McEwan, who also wrote the source material. The first half of the film, set around the knotty trial, is riveting, but later scenes between Fiona and Adam are too short and lack substance. McEwan doesn’t expand enough, visually or narratively, on their motives or desires. There are some large ellipses in the story that limit our emotional investment with these characters, as well as other moments that spell out, quite redundantly, how characters think and feel. The drama ends up seeming both over-written and incomplete.
Is The Children Act essential viewing?
Sadly, no. It’s a shame, given the valiant efforts of the cast, that the drably shot courtroom portions of the drama are actually the most interesting parts. One only imagines what a different screenwriter translating McEwan’s novel to the screen could have done to deepen these characters.