The Children Act movie review: objections, sustained

The Children Act yellow light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

Courtroom drama? Portrait of a marriage? Character study of a workaholic? This frustratingly random film cannot figure out what it is or what it wants to say… but Emma Thompson’s beautifully empathetic performance is worth your time.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): I’m desperate for stories about women; adore Emma Thompson
I’m “biast” (con): not a fan of Ian McEwan
I have not read the source material
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
women’s participation in this film
male director, male screenwriter, female protagonist
(learn more about this)

What kind of movie is The Children Act, anyway? It’s not a courtroom drama even if it does revolve around a legal battle to allow a London hospital to administer a life-saving blood transfusion to an underage patient, whose parents are refusing to permit it because they are Jehovah’s Witnesses, who as a matter of faith oppose such treatment. (The title of the film refers to a 1989 British law pertaining to the welfare of children.) It’s not a reckoning with religion in a secular age, or with antiscientific beliefs that are downright deadly; it invokes such notions only to leave them mostly unexplored, and leaves poor Ben Chaplin (Snowden, The Legend of Tarzan), as the devout father, rather dangling after an impassioned defense of his beliefs. (In the opening minutes of the film, one character mentions, in an academic setting, how “Christianity… close[d] the Western mind,” an electrifying suggestion that would seem to be setting up the story’s central conflict. But the idea is instantly dropped, as is any academic philosophizing.) It’s not a story about a troubled marriage, even if it does feature the always marvelous Stanley Tucci (Show Dogs, Submission) walking out on his wife, the work-obsessed judge, because she basically walked out of the marriage years ago.

The Children Act confronts such notions as antiscientific beliefs that are downright deadly only to leave them mostly unexplored.

The closest The Children Act approaches to a coherent kind of tale is as a character study of the judge, Fiona Maye. By some minor miracle, director Richard Eyre (Notes on a Scandal, Stage Beauty) has managed to give us a portrait of a messed-up woman without making it feel like a judgment on her as a woman; nor does the film seem to make sweeping judgments about women, either. Emma Thompson’s (Beauty and the Beast, Bridget Jones’s Baby) palpable empathy for Fiona, and her ability to subtly convey that to us, with oceans of confused and conflicted emotion roiling just under her placid surface, makes her not only beautifully real but specifically individual. Yes, this is yet another movie about a workaholic professional woman who cannot cope with it all, one that fails to even acknowledge that for women, achieving a comfortable balance between career and personal life comes with many more obstacles than for our male peers (like the whole “women have to work twice as hard as men for half the recognition” thing, for the barest of starters; it’s wildly unlikely that Fiona could have ever been as successful as she is without being a raging workaholic.) But Act is, at least, not a film that condemns women — or even this one woman — for daring to do a man’s job, or for not being emotional “enough,” or for failing to perform femininity better, which is so often the undercurrent of movie like this one.

“Sorry, darling, but I’m leaving you to open a 1950s Italian restaurant–themed pub in Shoreditch.”
“Sorry, darling, but I’m leaving you to open a 1950s Italian restaurant–themed pub in Shoreditch.”

So that is no small thing. And kudos, too, to the film for giving Fiona a male law clerk (the lovely Jason Watkins: Doctor Who, Twenty Twelve) who is ultra-attentive to her needs in a way that will be seen as traditionally feminine: he brings her biscuits and coffee; he mends her courtroom wig; he’s gentle and solicitous of her moods and weathers her tantrums with quiet, dignified aplomb. But this character study is nevertheless a frustratingly random and disorderly one, in spite of Thompson’s tremendous efforts. (She’s the only reason to see this movie, although she’s enough.) We simply never know what the film is trying to say about her as a person or as an adjudicator of weighty matters. Is she too rigid to be humane in her judgments? Is her personal upset at home impacting her ability to be impartial? Is she, in fact, actually not that bothered about her husband leaving? Why does the film refrain from helping us appreciate just how radical and unusual it is for Fiona to visit the Jehovah’s Witness boy (Fionn Whitehead: Dunkirk) in the hospital? Apparently this is not a thing a judge in Fiona’s situation would ever do, but we never understand why she deviated from standard practice, or what it means for her to have to done so.

This is yet another movie that fails to acknowledge the extra obstacles that professional women face in balancing career and personal life.

Ian McEwan adapted his own novel for the screen here, and that is rarely a good idea: a bit of distance from the material is needed, and a bit of ruthlessness in deciding what belongs onscreen and what doesn’t. Things that work on the page don’t necessarily translate to cinema. (I haven’t read the book, so perhaps the book doesn’t work, either. But McEwan’s self-adapted On Chesil Beach suffers from similar issues.) The script is constantly picking up ideas and emotions and even entire plot tangents — a stalking element pops up at one point — only to turn them over once or twice and then discard them as uninteresting… or in the mistaken belief that it has said what it wants to say about them. But whatever The Children Act thinks it’s about, I cannot fathom.

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