Ian McEwan’s poignant screen adaptation of his 2014 novel, The Children Act, directed by Richard Eyre, stars Emma Thompson in a career-best performance as a level-headed high court judge facing a crisis in her personal and professional life.
Fiona Maye decides the legal fate of children and early on we are offered a montage of court hearings that makes it clear how professionally and efficiently she conducts herself. One difficult case involves the separation of conjoined twins – an operation will ensure the survival of one and the death of the other. Hardworking and dedicated, Fiona is proud of her rational approach, but her work is taking its toll on her marriage and her loyal, academic husband Jack (Stanley Tucci) is threatening to have an affair with a younger woman.
Things come to a head when Fiona rules on the case of Adam, (Fionn Whitehead), whose life is at risk because of his faith. His parents (Ben Chaplin and Eileen Walsh) are Jehovah’s Witnesses and their religion forbids Adam, ill with leukaemia, from receiving a blood transfusion – a simple procedure which would save his life. But Adam is not quite eighteen and is therefore a legal minor. Fiona has to make a decision in his best interests which goes against his parents’ religious scruples and his own wishes. She elects to visits Adam in hospital, they recite poetry and sing together and she rules on saving his life. During that visit they forge a tenuous bond but when Adam gets better he develops a dangerous obsession with Fiona. Her own feelings are ambiguous, but she attempts to retain a professional distance.
At the same time her marriage to the long-suffering Jack is floundering. While she is the epitome of cool-headedness in court, Fiona behaves irrationally at home, refusing to talk things through with her husband, changing the locks and consulting divorce lawyers. Their marriage is at risk, largely, we, suspect, because of Fiona’s preoccupation with work and their childlessness; a disappointment which she appears to have never addressed or truly comprehend.
The subject could hardly be more topical – the title refers to the 1989 Children Act, which allows the law courts the power to intervene in order to protect a child’s welfare. It’s a serious subject but comic relief comes in the form of Fiona’s punctilious and discreet assistant Nigel (a superb Jason Watkins). While Fiona is all order on the outside, Nigel gives us a glimpse of the theatricality of the English law courts. He tends and guards her ornate wig and gown with all the tender zeal of a costume designer.
McEwan clearly loves writing about specialised professions – his 2005 novel Saturday was about a brain surgeon – and The Children Act brilliantly recreates the measured mind and language of a judge. But McEwan and Eyre are also interested in conveying the tumultuous emotional currents that operate below the surface in a person – often unrecognised until it is too late.
Lucy Popescu | @lucyjpop