Richard Eyre’s latest film, The Children Act, is named after a piece of legislation, that, though subject to numerous amendments and modifications over the years, still retains the same opening. “The child’s welfare shall be the court’s paramount consideration”, reads the tail end of section 1(1) of the statute, and the beginning of the judgment of High Court Justice Fiona Maye (Emma Thompson), as she rules the case of a leukemic 17-year-old boy, who, as a Jehovah’s witness, is unwilling to accept a blood transfusion that would save his life. But since, as Maye declares in an earlier case, “this court is a court of law, not of morals”, the vexing quandary—whether a child should be legally forced, without consent, to take a life-saving blood transfusion—is settled with ease on the titular legal precedent. It’s also settled near the film’s halfway mark, and so Eyre contemplates less the moral ambiguities of the question, but the repercussions of its answer.
With a screenplay adapted by Ian McEwan from his own 2014 novel of the same name, The Children Act finds Fiona Maye in the midst of a marital crisis and a career fraught with moral dilemmas, which, in her jurisdiction—family law—feels inextricably personal. The cinematic adaptations of McEwan’s books (most notably Atonement and On Chesil Beach) consistently face an insurmountable task: to characterise the cerebral ruminations from which McEwan’s literature draws its emotional intellectualism. As her husband Jack (Stanley Tucci) leaves her to embark on an affair, and Maye herself confronts one tough legal decision after the next, introspection (found in the novel’s long, pensive monologues) can only be gleaned from Emma Thompson’s mercurial minutiae of frown lines and pursed lips. The compressed inadequacy of such movements is most sharply realised as she navigates a seemingly precarious, multifaceted case concerning Adam Henry (Fionn Whitehead), a cancer-stricken boy, 3 months shy of 18—veeringly close to adulthood, and with plunging counts of haemoglobins, white-cells, and platelets, veeringly close to death.
Though this film, in spite of the pale, sickly boy at its centrepiece, feels far from bleak. A simple glance at its two leading actors—Emma Thompson and Stanley Tucci—should give you a sense of the tone of The Children Act. With these two, the former playing a judge, the latter a professor of Greek history, one can easily surmise that director Richard Eyre (whose films, ranging from spiteful power-plays to elegiac biography, are consistently peppered with DBEs, CBEs, and OBEs) has no intention of forging a gritty, austere portrait of moral and religious torment. Dan Kokotajlo’s Apostasy, released last year already ticks the boxes on that one. Sidestepping the sentimentality that The Children Act produces at machine rate, Apostasy forms a mind-numbingly prosaic depiction of religious duty, as a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses encounter solemnly the prospect of an out-of-wedlock pregnancy and a necessary blood transfusion. Unlike Apostasy’s murky, slow-cooker tensions, The Children Act, much like Thompson and Tucci, is clean, couth, and devastating, but only on cue.
Like Kokotajlo (previously a Jehovah’s Witness), Eyre and McEwan recast the moral into the personal. But though they both embark on the same, ethical impasse, one clear distinction is drawn—instead of stooping into the anxieties of those affected, Eyre hoists his lens on the shoulder of a High Court judge. Our first shot of Adam, as he lies feverish in a hospital bed, is from above; we peer down, faintly sceptical, from behind Maye’s shoulder. From there on, the narrative devolves decisively from the boundless ethical ricochets it introduces in Adam’s initial court hearing, bypassing questions of dignity, consent, welfare, freedom of religion, etc. Instead, from the moment Maye first sees Adam, his on-paper presence manifests into flesh-and-blood, and so the trap is set; professionalism is discarded for empathy; theoretics for the emotional. But this seems less effective when placed alongside other strings of narrative. When Adam leaves the hospital, healthy from a non-elective blood transfusion, his persistent intrusion on Maye’s life (as a particularly spirited stalker, and in one horrific, unguarded moment, a love interest) catalogues him simply as one emotional irritant among others—placed neatly beside Maye’s other personal qualms—her husband’s affair; her regret of not having children; an upcoming piano performance.
Maye epitomises professionally the infallible judicial institution, dressed to the tee (by costume designer Fotini Dimou) in monotonic, tailored fabrics (with the occasional wig-robe get-up), outfit complete with a skittish, servile clerk, Nigel Pauling (Jason Watkins), at her every beck and call. Towering above all in her judge’s seat, she occupies an archetypal vision of intellectual prowess. So much so that when Adam’s devout father scowls at a lawyer, telling him, “you’ve probably no idea what it means to submit to a higher authority”, the close-up of Justice Maye is played with nothing short of irony (Maye describes herself at one point in the novel as a “secular god”). There is nothing in her personal life to rebut this imperious presumption—at home, she spends her time playing Bach on a Fazioli baby grand; in her first visit to Adam, she charms him with ease by singing W.B. Yeats as he picks at a guitar. Such is the vast shadow of Maye’s so-called superiority, which Eyre deftly conceals by lifting us to her level, and as such shelters us substantially from those, including Adam, who endure the repercussions of her actions.
In an interview, Richard Eyre quotes a judge by saying: “You have to understand, every single case that we’re adjudicating contains pain.” He continues: “Divorce, custody, cruelty – nobody comes in front of them, by definition, who is there for a laugh or has committed a crime and hopes they will get away with it. Everybody’s lives are in some way damaged if they’ve got that far.” But whether Adam lives or dies comes off limply as a plot point, a paragraph or two in Fiona Maye’s inevitable two-volume memoir. True, there may always be an unbridgeable gulf between the judge and the judged. But while Adam Henry initially exudes genuinely a sense of uncertain distance, post-transfusion, as he becomes increasingly fanatic, he comes off as hammy and inexplicably ambiguous, and as the sentimentality piles on in heavy, predictable slops, the film’s sensitivity curdles unpleasantly into scepticism.