One of the year’s most searing dramas
At the risk of continuing to bash Life Itself after having just having finished writing an entire review which more or less does just that, I thought it necessary, if not vital, to write a review praising the kind of drama we sorely need more of during this time of year. Based on the Ian McEwan novel, The Children Act manages to be just that in its offering of enriching characters and the complex situations which consume them. The Richard Eyre-directed film illustrates all of the above with such beautiful ease, going for both heart and conscience in telling its story. However, beyond just giving the people in The Children Act the typical sort of dramatic fare to wrestle with, the film offers up situations which will inevitably provoke and challenge one’s own ideals in sumptuously moving and poetic ways.
In The Children Act, London family court judge Fiona Maye (Emma Thompson) finds herself so overworked, presiding over one troubled and challenging case after another featuring damaged families and children in peril. Fiona’s work has consumed her so thoroughly, that her literature professor husband Jack (Stanley Tucci) has announced that he would like to have an affair with someone else as a result of feeling like he no longer exists in their marriage. As she wrestles with this bombshell, Fiona also becomes taken aback by a fascination with her latest case involving a just underage teenager named Adam (Fionn Whitehead), whose parents and their religion prevents him from accepting a blood transfusion as a means of beating his battle with leukemia.
As one might rightly assume that there’s quite a moral side to The Children Act, which may or may not be to an audience’s liking. Regardless, the film should provoke a number of arguments from both sides of the aisle regarding the welfare of children and what factors go into determining it. When the film opens, Fiona is seen to be delivering a verdict that a pair of conjoined twins on the brink of death be separated, so that one may have a chance at living. The decision results in a public outcry and offers an insight into the kind of professional life Fiona inhabits. When Adam’s case passes by her desk, Fiona once again finds herself with another child whose situation is anything but cut and dry. The questions needing answering are large ones. Is the almost-adult Adam knowledgable enough to make his own decisions? How much are his parents influencing his decision to refuse a blood transfusion? Does one person (in this case, Fiona) have the right to override another’s religious beliefs solely based on their own personal ones? All of the above are impossible to answer, and yet, after meeting with the young man in his hospital room, Fiona finds she’s unable to. Instead, she falls back on the titular law which states that the well-being of anyone underage will be the court’s number one priority, forcing Adam to have his transfusion.
It’s when the personal shows itself that The Children Act becomes an altogether different experience thanks to the trying and dizzying emotional journey of its main character. When Fiona encounters Adam post-transfusion, he demands to know why it is she came to see him since he feels she was always going to rule in favor of the law. The question Adam poses opens Fiona up to several she herself needed answering, with the ultimate being: What happened to her? It’s here that The Children Act takes on the form of a character study featuring a woman who let herself get so wrapped up in the care and protection of the multitude of children she encountered, that she forgot that she herself was capable of true humanity and warmth outside of it. There’s a great sense that Fiona has lost herself in her life without ever meaning to. It’s an age-old predicament, but The Children Act makes Fiona’s journey of self-evaluation and rediscovery incredibly complex through showcasing both the revelation of her fractured marriage and an altogether different perspective on death as seen through the eyes of youth.
Thompson remains so at the top of her game, giving the kind of leading performance she can both nail in her sleep while also unearthing a deeper level of skill. The actress brings out Fiona’s tough skin from the get go, but plays her as a human being whose empathy and warmth has been has pushed to the side. When Fiona’s vulnerability comes through, the magic of Thompson’s work singlehandedly heightens the overall film and launches both it and the audience into an altogether different emotional orbit. Supporting Thompson are a pair of great actors bringing two richly complex characters to life. Tucci’s is by far the trickiest role within The Children Act. The actor is tasked with making a case for a man intent on infidelity, which Tucci does through the conflict, sadness, honesty and love he shows in all of his scenes. Whitehead meanwhile, gives one of the best supporting turns of the year as a young man being introduced to the higher understanding of life. The actor plays Adam with an old soul quality which does right by the depth of the material and proves to be a more than worthy scene partner for his highly accomplished co-star.
It saddens me a bit that The Children Act isn’t getting the kind of release it would have 15 years ago. In the early 2000s, the film would have been raised up on a pedestal for all to see and would have been pushed immediately forward for every kind of award it had a chance of collecting. But this is 2018 and the film has to be content with a television release overseas and VOD treatment followed by a brief theatrical run stateside. It’s unclear as to what this means for The Children Act’s awards chances since the general rule is that a film must play in theaters for at least a week before surfacing on any other platform in order to qualify for the majority of end-of-year prizes. It’s peculiar, and sadly under-the-radar, release means that the filmt will miss out on so many awards that it would surely have claimed in a previous era. Regardless of this, the very existence of The Children Act itself is prize enough for that special brand of moviegoer who recognizes the beauty of being both intellectually challenged and deeply moved by cinema.