Helen Tope reviews The Children Act, showing this week at Plymouth Arts Centre (all performances are sold out).
A portrait of inner life, Ian McEwan’s novel The Children Act shouldn’t translate onto film, but with previous form such as Enduring Love and Atonement, McEwan’s dark, acerbic vision lends itself all too readily to the big screen.
Telling the story of High Court Judge Fiona Maye (played by Emma Thompson), we meet the woman behind the establishment. Fiona’s home life is held hostage by her long hours and crushing workload. The demands placed on her seem entirely unreasonable, until you see her at work. Calm, focused and ready to listen, Fiona is perfectly suited to her role. She steps in where medical intervention is required for a child or young person (legally defined as under 18), and doctors and families cannot reach an accord.
The emphasis in law is to preserve life wherever possible, but as we watch Fiona work, it becomes clear that to put law into practice often means going against moral instinct. The separation of conjoined twins is a decision not left to the parents, but enforced by the Court. McEwan as screenwriter is careful not to draw lines of opposition; it is a far more sophisticated treatment of the subject than we are normally given. His examination of the law and its fitness for purpose is cleverly and sympathetically drawn.
Thompson’s performance – already tipped for an Oscar – edges away from the confines of the film into something larger. In her portrayal of Fiona, we see the complete human being. The Judge, certainly, but also an enthusiastic and accomplished pianist. (The film’s soundtrack is excellent, and will have you scanning Spotify before the end credits have finished rolling). But as she plays at her piano, a present from her husband, it is apparent their marriage is failing.
We know Thompson can do quiet desperation (Remains of the Day), and grief tempered with fury (Love Actually), but here Thompson delivers anger, broken down into its component parts. Anger at her husband’s threatened infidelity; the rigidity of the law and her inability to conquer either.
The film works best as a depiction of the woman in power. Studies of middle-aged women in Hollywood are rare, but The Children Act makes a compelling case for why we should see more. Thompson is especially good at exposing the pressure beneath the privilege. The impossible choices Maye must preside over – let a child die to save another – bring horror, not peace.
In the case that dominates the film, a teenage boy (nearly 18) refuses a blood transfusion because his religion forbids the treatment. Both the boy and his family are devout, intelligent and facing an unimaginable future. The ethical stance here is complicated to say the least. Both McEwan and director Richard Eyre point us towards no particular direction, preferring instead that we navigate our way through the maze, just as Fiona must do.
In an unprecedented move, Fiona decides to go to the boy in person, to ensure that he is refusing treatment on his own terms. She meets Boy A (Adam) in his hospital bed. He is charming, and filled with boyish enthusiasm (a newly-discovered passion for the guitar) and he perfectly articulates his reasons for refusing medical intervention. But the fact of his age remains. Fiona returns to Court and makes the only judgement she can. The transfusion goes ahead.
A lesser film would eke out this drama, but McEwan’s screenplay goes beyond the realm of the High Court and hospital ward, to look at what happens next. McEwan offers no balm of a benevolent world – tidy endings, neat conclusions. The characters’ lives continue to intersect long after judgement has been passed.
Thompson’s stellar performance carries the film, but the supporting cast brilliantly flesh out the life beneath Fiona’s steely gaze. As quite possibly the hardest-working clerk in Britain, the always-excellent Jason Watkins is the presence that keeps Fiona grounded. Playing Adam, Fionn Whitehead delivers a boy that leaps off the pages of the novel. Sophisticated and utterly innocent; knowing yet hopelessly naive, Adam is the heart of the film. A study in ambiguity, whether he is the hero or the villain, we are left to figure out for ourselves.
The Children Act makes a point not to resolve, but to question. While there is admiration for the sacrifices made by Fiona, McEwan asks whether it is a price worth paying, when the law can only move so far to govern and protect. The question, as you might expect, is left unanswered.