The Children Act is the latest in a long line of Ian McEwan books to be translated into high-minded features and the second to have been adapted by the writer himself. Intensely thought-provoking, if rather arch, it tells the story of a judge who must rule on whether an underage man has the religiously-induced right to reject life-saving treatment.
Both book and film, though fictional, take their inspiration from a real life case in the nineties, with Emma Thompson taking the seat then occupied by Sir Alan Ward. The dilemma in question, then and now, relates to the refusal of a young Jehovah’s Witness to accept a make or break blood transfusion, on the grounds that such a procedure goes against divine principles. A key concept in the Kingdom Hall being that blood is home to the soul and so to accept that of another is to contaminate. Among the most interesting themes of the film is the omnipotence of mankind in the face of God; is the deitic ruling of a judge blasphemous when it concerns life itself?
Thompson plays Fiona Maye, a top-ranking High Court judge, with an iron repose. In an early run we witness her permit the separation of co-dependent conjoined newborns, effectively killing one to save the other, before sequentially dismissing and whittling through a series of further cases. The rule of her game is declared early: ‘This court is a court of law, not of morality’. It’s a meaty job with great ethical implication and has stirred riffs in Fiona’s home life. There, chaste husband Jack declares with blackly comic boredom: ‘I think I want to have an affair.’
In spite of the undeniable power of Thompson’s performance – it’s safe ground for the actor – her character is a difficult one to critically wrestle with. Fiona is yet one more problematic career woman in cinema, an individual who may not be not be both professional and empathetic. Her Marcel Breuer furnished home never entirely feels lived in, whilst her steel exterior forbids engagement until much too late in the runtime. Worse still, the film awkwardly questions whether a woman who has no children of her own may rule of those of others, before seemingly punishing Fiona for allowing herself to form an emotional attachment to Adam (Dunkirk’s Fionn Whitehead), the boy refusing blood. One brief acknowledgement of the gender inequality atop the British justice system is, meanwhile, deeply cursory.
Fiona is not the film’s only character to ring untrue. In the manner of Alan Bennett’s History Boys, Adam verses with a theatrical profundity, more suited to stage than screen: ‘I feel like the top of my head as exploded’. In an oddly wired performance, Whitehead struggles to spur audience empathy as his character faces ethical dilemmas and their personal ramifications, not to mention an unlikely passion for Keats. I confess to having been more intrigued by the backstory of Fiona’s simperingly efficient clerk Nigel, played by a quietly excellent Jason Watkins. For the most part, however, these characters are pawns to the wider debate, rather than three dimensional people with a believable life beyond the story.
This story is at least stimulating enough to ensure that the film remains entertaining throughout. Richard Eyre’s direction is sturdy, gaining momentum from Stephen Warbeck’s stoic piano score. Court rise.