Film Review – The Children Act (2017)

Ian McEwan is having something of a moment.  It’s just three months since On Chesil Beach arrived in cinemas: as well as writing the original novel, he also adapted it for the big screen, and now it’s the turn of The Children Act, which sees him repeating the double act.  Not that he’s a stranger to movies: his books are a perennial favourite with directors, as the likes of Atonement and Enduring Love demonstrate.

The Children Act also sees him join forces again with a director from a theatre background.  On Chesil Beach was Dominic Cooke’s film debut, while this time it’s Richard Eyre in the driving seat for a film with more than a little built-in theatricality.  The story of a high court judge faced with a seemingly impossible decision takes the audience backstage into the inner workings of the legal profession, as well as allowing them to observe the public persona of “my lady” (Emma Thompson).  The parents of a teenage boy, just short of adulthood by a couple of months, are refusing to let him have a life-saving blood transfusion.  They’re Jehovah’s Witnesses, so is he, but his age means that the final decision rests with the children’s court.  And the Children Act of 1989 stipulates that no harm should come to a child.

It’s a premise that’s been in the spotlight before, one full of moral dilemma and personal anguish, especially for Thompson’s judge.  Not only is she being asked to play God with the teenager’s life, but she’s facing a crisis at home, one primarily caused by her dedication to her gruellingly responsible job.  Her marriage to Jack (Stanley Tucci) is crumbling, the couple are distant, hardly spending any time together, and he feels so pushed out that he leaves.  But this is essentially a sub-plot, one designed to land more pressure on Thompson’s shoulders and which finds itself reduced to a side show that doesn’t produce much more drama than some spilt coffee.  It’s the least convincing aspect of the film, but is saved by the acting of both Thompson and Tucci.  Thompson, in particular, reminds us – if we need reminding – of the clarity and compassion she brings to her performances, even if her character on this occasion has to keep her emotions under strict control.

While the film is getting a theatrical release, the intimacy of the story points towards a more natural home on the small screen.  As it stands, it looks like it’s been stretched beyond its inherent size, something that’s reinforced by several members of the cast playing to the types they have created on TV: Jason Watkins is the efficient but over-fussy clerk, Nicholas Jones is a pompous professor and Rupert Vansittart is a loud and very posh colleague.  It’s well-trodden territory for all of them.

This is also the second film in as many months to focus on the Jehovah’s Witness community.  Apostasy was an insider’s view and had a very different storyline, although the inevitable blood transfusion issue still lingered, so the two make fascinating companion pieces.  Yet, despite all the starry names attached to it and Emma Thompson’s performance in particular, The Children Act is the less satisfying of the two.  The issues are all there, as are the dilemmas, but they’re never fully explored and the ending feels awkwardly rushed.

Freda Cooper | [rating=3]

Read our interview with The Children Act director, Richard Eyre, here.

Drama | 12A | UK, 24 August (2018) | EntertainmentOne | Dir. Richard Eyre| Emma Thompson, Stanley Tucci, Fionn Whitehead, Ben Chaplin and Jason Watkins