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ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

The Children Act

Contemplating the intersection of faith, medicine and the law, this moving drama features a powerhouse performance by Emma Thompson.
By Sarah Ward
November 22, 2018
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The Children Act

Contemplating the intersection of faith, medicine and the law, this moving drama features a powerhouse performance by Emma Thompson.
By Sarah Ward
November 22, 2018
  shares

Saying that a particular actor could read the phone book and make it sound great has long been deemed high praise. It's now a cliche, but like many over-used expressions, it still remains accurate. Ask Emma Thompson to utter any words on screen, for example, and it'd likely prove enthralling. Playing a family court judge in The Children Act, she reads legal judgements in a complicated case, keeping her emotions in check when few others can. Her character gives firm, sober answers both in her professional and her personal lives — and when the justice lets her guard down on one rare occasion, Thompson literally sings. Indeed, regardless of what the two-time Academy Award winner is doing or saying, she's utterly riveting.

Thompson's Fiona Maye spends her days adjudicating difficult cases involving the welfare of minors, with the 1989 U.K. law known as the Children Act her guiding light. It's a job that she approaches with the utmost care, and often under significant scrutiny. Fresh from decreeing the fate of conjoined infants in an affair that's been splashed across the newspapers, another thorny matter comes before her court. 17-year-old Jehovah's Witness Adam Henry (Fionn Whitehead) is dying from leukaemia, and refuses to have a blood transfusion because it's forbidden by his faith. His devout parents (Ben Chaplin and Eileen Walsh) support his choice, but his doctors are seeking legal intervention to administer the life-saving treatment.

The decision facing Fiona might rank among the most complex of her career, weighing someone's right to life against their right to their beliefs. Crucially, she's charged with deciding whether a boy who's almost a man can make a choice between the two for himself. Thompson is a powerhouse when Fiona is quietly considering all of the details, often with a pensive yet penetrating look adorning her face. She's just as mesmerising when she's exercising the character's wit, too. But when The Children Act truly cracks Fiona's facade — in fights with her unhappy husband (Stanley Tucci) about their childless marriage, in tender moments when she flouts protocol to visit Adam on his sickbed, and when she just can't hide the stress of the situation — she's nothing short of astonishing. When Adam feels as if he's being drawn to Fiona, his reaction to her presence is easy to understand.

Thompson turns in a soulful performance in a film that also earns the same description, which is hardly surprising given the movie's pedigree. The Children Act isn't just the second novel by Ian McEwan to reach the big screen this year, after On Chesil Beach. It's also the second that he has written the screenplay for himself — something that he hadn't done for nearly 25 years beforehand. On the page and in the cinema, the result is another of the writer's mature and thoughtful works, with the picture sensitively handled by director Richard Eyre. The filmmaker is no stranger to complicated matters himself, as previously seen in book-to-film adaptation Notes on a Scandal, but there's a blend of deep emotion and calm subtlety to The Children Act that borders on devastating.

Credit is also due to Whitehead, best known until now for his work in Dunkirk, who ensures that Adam is as multifaceted and fascinating as Fiona. It's a portrayal that makes viewers wish for another life for his character, and certainly keeps the audience invested in Adam's fate. As an acting showcase for both the young talent and for Thompson, The Children Act couldn't be better, however the patiently shot drama also succeeds as a probing and empathetic look at a difficult topic. Like this year's festival favourite Apostasy, it ponders faith and medicine among Jehovah's Witnesses to stunning effect — and with heart-wrenching delicacy.

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