Richard Eyre and Ian McEwan’s collaborative project The Children Act (based off of McEwan’s novel of the same name) oozes emotional intelligence. As a member of the audience, you become far more than just a voyeur in this emotionally mature and immersive cinematic experience.
Tasked with the near impossible, judge Fiona Maye (Emma Thompson) endeavours to keep her marriage afloat, whilst coming to a fair verdict on an emotional and morally trying case. When 17-year-old Adam Henry (Fionn Whitehead) is diagnosed with leukemia, both he and his parents refuse the life saving blood transfusion treatment advised by the hospital, due to their beliefs as Jehovah’s Witnesses. On the fringes of adulthood, but ultimately still a child in the eyes of the law, Adam’s uncompromising position on his religious principles sparks a rigorous, yet thoughtful, debate concerned with the right to religious freedom and to a dignified, yet arguably unnecessary, death.
When a child’s life is at stake, most would naturally bend any principle to protect them, and those who are uncompromising due to matters of a personal or religious nature are often shunned. With this in mind, it was refreshing that the film did not seek to vilify Adam’s parents for refusing him potentially life saving treatment. Eyre and McEwan were seemingly aware that the audience would have preconceived notions about this debate of religious freedom verses scientific logic, which misalign themselves with the Henry family. Instead of taking the easier route, there is an admirable effort from the filmmakers not to present them as unfeeling monsters. Indeed, both sides are given a stage upon which to articulate their case. Consequently, the film’s thorough investigation into the arguments of freedom of choice is not only tasteful but also deeply engaging. You find yourself questioning your stance on the fundamental nature of choice, agency, and morality.
In places the plot slightly loses its footing, but it is in the acting where the film flourishes. The Children Act sees some truly stunning performances from Thompson and Whitehead; two individuals, from two wholly different worlds, who are pulled together by what could be interpreted as fate or chance. Regardless of whether their meeting was due to divine providence or not, the dynamic relationship between the pair is truly enchanting. Whitehead shines as the charismatic young man who simultaneously grapples with an imposing philosophic wisdom and childlike-wonder for life; Thompson matches the emerging actor’s energy with an elegance and emotional potency which has earned her much critical acclaim throughout her career.
What was slightly disappointing, however, was Stanley Tucci’s minimal performance. Underpinning Fiona’s journey throughout the film is her failing marriage with long-term husband Jack (Tucci). Their dynamic was interesting, as, much in the same way the film dealt with Adam’s parents, Jack’s candid approach to their marital issues did not render him as an unsympathetic brute, but a neglected husband. It would have been interesting to see the film make more of this element of the plot, and with an actor of Tucci’s calibre, it could have made for some resonating performances. Instead, it felt as though they let this storyline flounder.
Overall, The Children Act, despite the occasional fluctuation of plot quality, is a piece of enlightened cinematic craftsmanship. Potent performances from a skilled cast emotively bring McEwan’s thoughtful screenplay to life, which leaves the audience better equipped to deal with notions of theology, morality, and humanity.