Review: The Children Act

Directed by: Richard Eyre
Written by: Ian McEwan
Starring: Emma Thompson, Stanley Tucci, Fionn Whitehead, Ben Chaplin, Eileen Walsh, Jason Watkins
Released: November 22, 2018
Grade: A-

The Children Act
I realise there’s value in the message but films tend to be unnecessarily simple when stressing the importance of family time ahead of work.  We often see a leading character spend too many hours in the office or too many days travelling away from home.  Lo and behold, an unexpected event gives them a fresh perspective, they spend more time with their loved ones, and they live happily ever after.

With the greatest of respect to all professions, there are some where the responsibilities of work often exceed those at home.  Can a fire fighter take their kids on holiday when a bushfire rages across his home city?  Can a doctor put down their tools half-way through a complex surgery and head home for dinner with the family?  Can a politician go out with friends for a few drinks instead of entertaining a visiting foreign dignitary?

The Children Act highlights that the role of a judge is one of the most important in society.  Their decisions shape society and have a major impact on individual’s lives.  In the opening scenes, the Honourable Justice Fiona Maye (Thompson) has been asked to rule on a tricky case involving conjoined twins.  The doctors wish to perform surgery to save the life of one child but the parents wish for them to remain joined (despite significant risk to both children).  She must weigh up case law against her own morals in making the most appropriate decision.

It’s clear Fiona has a passion for her work but the long hours spent preparing for cases and writing judgements have come at a cost.  Her long-term husband, Jack (Tucci), has grown frustrated by the lack of intimacy and openly admits that he wants to have an affair.  The film is focused on Fiona’s viewpoint (she reacts angrily as you’d expect) but thanks to the skilful writing of Ian McEwan (Atonement), audiences are likely to feel sympathy for both characters.  It’s hard to say that one is “right” and one is “wrong”.

There’s a second layer to the movie and it involves an urgent case that Fiona has been given.  A 17-year-old boy named Adam (Whitehead) has leukemia and will die within a matter of days if he is not given a blood transfusion.  However, he and his parents have refused such treatment because it goes against their religious views as Jehovah’s Witnesses.  The doctors wish to override the parents’ decision and Fiona must now pick a side as a hungry media show an increasing interest in the case.

The Children Act is both a moving drama and an absorbing character study.  Fiona has had a long, successful career but after decades of specialising in family law, she’s had to develop a tough exterior to help shield herself from the emotive, personal nature of these cases.  That changes with the arrival of Adam and his particular circumstances dwell heavily on Fiona’s mind.

Directed by Richard Eyre (Iris, Notes on a Scandal), the film is headlined by three terrific performances from Emma Thompson (Howard’s End), Stanley Tucci (The Lovely Bones) and Fionn Whitehead (Dunkirk).  Their respective characters share intelligent, persuasive conversations as they argue over certain issues.  Jason Watkins adds an enjoyable splash of comedy in his role as Fiona’s hard-working personal assistant.

Offering up plenty to think about when it comes to work-life balance and religious freedoms, The Children Act is a powerful, affecting piece of cinema.