THE CHILDREN ACT Review: The High Court Of Emma Thompson

Thompson presides over everyone in the latest Ian McEwan adaptation.

Emma Thompson always manages to bring both a comforting and commanding presence to her roles, and her latest is no exception.

In The Children Act, the Academy Award-winning actress and screenwriter (Howards End, Sense and Sensibility) stars as Fiona Maye, a respected High Court judge specializing in family law. Having dedicated her life to her career, Fiona harbors regret over never having a child of her own while embracing her responsibility to make life and death decisions pertaining to the children of others. The film opens with her ruling on a case involving conjoined twins, illustrating her conscientious approach to choosing life for one child even though it means sacrificing the other. When her neglected husband, Jack (Stanley Tucci), candidly announces that he’s decided to have an affair, she is called upon to preside over yet another urgent case, forcing her to juggle her personal crisis and the challenging demands of her job.  

The new case centers on teenager Adam Henry (Fionn Whitehead of Dunkirk), a Jehovah’s Witness suffering from leukemia and refusing a blood transfusion that could potentially save his life. Three months shy of his eighteenth birthday Adam is still a minor, leaving his fate to Fiona as she silently struggles to maintain her composure in the midst of an emotional crisis. After hearing the arguments of science versus faith, from the hospital and Adam’s parents (Ben Chaplin and Eileen Walsh) respectively, Fiona makes the unorthodox decision to visit the boy's bedside. The frail but excitable young man charms her, and they briefly bond over a shared passion for poetry and music. He assures her that he shares his parents’ beliefs and that he is ready to die for them, which does little to deter Fiona from her resolution that “his life is more precious than his dignity.”

The Children Act is an entertaining and well-constructed drama directed by Richard Eyre (Notes on a Scandal, Stage Beauty) and adapted by Ian McEwan from his 2014 novel. Like its protagonist, the narrative is very posh and restrained, never quite reaching for anything more nuanced than the courtroom logic of right versus wrong. The solid supporting cast offers very little aside from Jason Watkins, who earns a few laughs as Fiona’s long-suffering clerk. Thompson carries the entirety of the film, slowly succumbing to the overwhelming stress of her situation. The third act falters as the boy, now recovered, abandons his faith and develops an unhealthy obsession with Fiona. The sudden dismissal of his beliefs render his earlier principles – for which he had been willing to die – completely frivolous. Sill, Whitehead is compelling and, at times, unsettling in his eagerness to get close to the woman he sees as his savior, phoning her constantly, writing her poems, and following her on a business trip.

The film will obviously appeal to the audience that prefers cerebral British dramas, but most will agree that Thompson captivates in every scene. Delivering an exquisitely subtle performance, she presides with dignity while quietly enduring the basest humiliation of her husband’s infidelity. Any nuance the film has to offer is projected through her subdued portrayal of Fiona Maye, whose doubt in her own decisions is given only the briefest consideration as it momentarily passes behind her eyes. While her professional façade eventually starts to crumble, the greatest injustice of the film is that this woman isn’t permitted to simply regret choosing a successful career over domesticity without also shouldering the blame for her husband’s affair. It’s a stale conflict that ultimately disparages an otherwise substantial female character. Regardless, Thompson’s dependable and commanding presence feels right at home on the bench of the British High Court.

The Children Act is now available on DIRECTV and in theaters 9/14.