Emma Thompson dominates every frame of The Children Act, carefully unravelling one of her finest-ever screen performances. To watch her this closely, this constantly, is to be reminded of her great empathy and actorly instincts, too often sidelined in roles not quite worthy of her keen intellect.
She plays a High Court Judge, Fiona Maye, who weighs up knotty cases of family law in court 47 of the Royal Courts of Justice. Her commitment to her career, her job, and her place at the moral heart of the nation, are having a negative effect on her own marriage, to Jack, played by the ever-likeable Stanley Tucci. It’s quite a shock, then, to watch him at the film’s start confess to his wife of 20 years – with presumably learned British politesse – that “I’m thinking of having an affair.”
Fi’s reaction is brilliant, a mix of hurt, exasperation, disgust, pity and self-protection: but she takes the awkward call on her mobile that interrupts Jack’s confession. The law must go on.
As Jack slopes off, Fi marches on to the case that will shape the future and the rest of the movie, a morally complex issue involving a 17-year-old with leukaemia who is refusing a blood transfusion on account of being raised by Jehovah’s Witnesses. The hospital is claiming the boy, Adam (Fionn Whitehead) will die.
The court case, and I do love a courtroom drama, is grippingly detailed. I was on the edge of my seat listening to the ebb and flow, the issues of faith, religion, science, ethics and law all circling and causing pain.
Too seldom do British movies assume the audience is smart enough to want to listen to debate on screen, but when it’s this well-written (Ian McEwan wrote the screenplay, adapting his own novel) and this unfussily shot (by Richard Eyre, who knows theatre can make good cinema when it needs to), then it can be a real thrill. Watching Emma Thompson grapple with the arguments from both sides is also a joy, the raising of the eyebrows, the darting of the eyes, the understanding smile.
I will say that the film springs into a different kind of action whenever Fiona leaves the courtroom. We do get to see the mysterious world of the Inns of Court, where she has a rather lovely flat, that rarified realm I glimpse from the top deck of the 19 bus and always wonder what goes on in those grand buildings, across those manicured lawns and down the alleys and arches. The Children Act goes deep into the fog of Dickens’ Bleak House.
Yet this being a McEwan work, there is a tonal shift and the film itself doesn’t quite alter to go with the change in temperature, the step up in creepiness, when the responsibility of her decision-making returns to haunt Fiona. It remains the sort of solid British picture you used to see in the early 1990s, just when a bit of invention might have been required. Eyre did it well in, say, Notes on a Scandal with Judi Dench, but a similar edge of darkness eludes him here.
In these later stages, the character of Fiona may not be above the long reach of the law, but the admirable Thompson holds her own to become better than the movie itself. All rise.