THE CHILDREN ACT. Starring: Emma Thompson, Stanley Tucci, Fionn Whitehead, Ben Chaplin and Eileen Walsh. Directed by Richard Eyre. Rated M (Occasional coarse language). 105 min.
This British film is based on the 2014 book of the same name written by Ian McEwan. It tells the story of a judge who is asked to rule on the case of a teenage boy who refuses a blood transfusion on religious grounds. The title refers to the Children Act of 1989 - a UK Act of Parliament, written to primarily protect the welfare of minors.
Mrs. Justice Fiona Maye ( Emma Thomson) is an eminent, well-respected judge in the High Court of Justice of England and Wales where she presides with compassion over ethically difficult cases in family law. One day, she is asked to rule on the case of Adam Henry (Fionn Whitehead), a young boy who has fallen ill. Adam is 17 years old, and still legally a child, being three months shy of the legal age of 18. He is suffering from leukaemia, and has been informed medically that he needs a blood transfusion to live. He and his parents (Ben Chaplin and Eileen Walsh), however, are Jehovah Witnesses and a blood transfusion is against their religion.
Fiona inappropriately visits Adam in hospital and discovers an intelligent romantic adolescent, and they instantly bond together. She rules in court that he should be given a blood transfusion despite the fact Adam and his parents have not consented to it. The transfusion is successful and the hospital releases Adam, who becomes attached to Fiona and follows her around. He sends her poems that he has written, and he asks Fiona to live with him. Fiona is astonished that Adam is behaving in this way and will not leave her alone. She recognises Adam’s dependency, as well as her own lapse of judgement and co-dependency, and she tries to terminate their contact.
In the midst of this turmoil, Fiona’s marriage of 30 years to her husband, Jack (Stanley Tucci) is in deep trouble. They have no children, and Fiona’s decisions in life seem to Jack to be as final as those she makes in court. Jack who has been looking for intimacy for a long while, says he needs to find solace and affection with another person, and that he has found someone who gives them to him. He moves out, but in two days he moves back to the woman he loves. Feeling betrayed, Fiona rejects him emotionally. While at a concert, Fiona receives the news that Adam has had a relapse and is critically ill in hospital, and a second blood transfusion is necessary to save his life. Adam, no longer a child, has refused it, and the film ends with Fiona and Jack at Adam’s funeral.
The film brings McEwan’s novel vibrantly to life. It is directed by Richard Eyre in an understated style that is elegantly realised and brilliantly supported by a cast of fine actors. Two in particular shine - Emma Thompson as Judge Maye, and Fionn Whitehead as Adam. It is a tour de force of acting by Emma Thompson, and her performance is magnificent as a Judge, who knows she has given life to a boy she is fond of, and whom she respects.
The film addresses a variety of questions including the right to choose, respect for religious beliefs, the ambiguous line that can divide human perceptions of what is right and wrong, and the conflict between facing one’s emotions, and evidencing moral strength. The film also explores the nature of marital relationships. It expertly contrasts the precision of Fiona’s compassionate, but yet coldly-based legal decision-making, with her personal unhappiness at home, and probes the trauma of Adam’s parents, who want their child to live, while their Faith says otherwise.
This is an absorbing movie that explores a variety of moral issues sensitively. Emma Thompson nails the role of a person accorded high social and professional status, who finds that she has to grapple with the reality that human emotions, aroused by Adam, have caused lapses in her professional judgement, and are now shaping how she is reacting, behaviourally and emotionally.
This is a richly complex movie that is deeply satisfying. The film powerfully addresses the interactions among love, human intimacy, social and legal expectations of what is appropriate, and moral responsibility. It is a must-see movie.
Peter W. Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting
Released November 22nd., 2018