The Children Act

We all make choices. Hers make history.

Richard Eyre’s The Children Act, adapted by Ian McEwan from his own novel, is a soulful and sophisticated adult drama that peers into the void between the beauty of ideals and the cost of living by them.

Poster for the literary adaptation The Children ActIt begins with Judge Fiona Maye (an extraordinary Emma Thompson) adjudicating an urgent case about conjoined twins. If the babies are left attached, both of them will die. If the decision is made to split them, only one will live. Cloaked in immense power but still empathetic to a fault, the judge can’t shake the idea that saving one life would mean ending another. For her, it is “A case of law, not of morals.”

When Fiona returns home to her posh flat, and her husband Jack (Stanley Tucci) declares that he thinks he wants to have an affair, she finds herself embroiled in a case of morals, not law. Or maybe not so suddenly, as the otherwise loving couple hasn’t had sex in 11 months, and Jack has been complaining about her workaholic habits for years. Should both of them suffer so that their marriage can survive, or would it be more humane to allow one partner their freedom while the other is left to feel unwanted?

A new case comes across the judge’s desk, this one about 17-year-old Adam (Dunkirk’s Fionn Whitehead), who will succumb to leukemia if he doesn’t receive a blood transfusion. The trouble is that Adam is a devout Jehovah’s Witness whose faith prohibits accepting the blood of another person. Alas, the boy is a minor, and his fate ultimately rests with Fiona.

Whitehead plays Adam like a brilliant alien whose faith manifests itself as a surplus of wonder and a complete lack of irony. He’s gobsmacked by Fiona, whose power and dignity would be enough to gobsmack just about anybody, let alone a kid who had never meaningfully interacted with anyone from the secular world. Fiona, meanwhile, is largely defined by whether she believes Adam, and what Adam makes her believe about herself.

Thompson inhabits Fiona as a woman who’s constantly judging herself in secret, every guilty verdict reflecting some guilt of her own. It’s through her that we feel the heartache of an empty home, through her that our attention is returned to the things that each of us has to lose so that we can manage to live. She makes it absolutely heartrending to watch Fiona’s veneer crack one line at a time.

All lives are compromised at some point, but something about that simple fact registers a lot deeper when you’re hearing it from Emma Thompson, and hanging on her every word.

– David Ehrlich, IndieWire


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