About halfway through The Children Act, Richard Ayre’s adaptation of the 2014 Ian McEwan novel of the same name, Emma Thompson’s character — the no-nonsense High Court Judge Fiona Maye — asks her assistant if he’s ever been “wild and free.”
“No, never, My Lady,” he replies, using the archaic address still required in fussy English institutions. “Thank God.”
It’s a sentiment par for the course with McEwan’s novels that’s always made more glaring when adapted to the big screen: well-mannered Englishmen and women who are always on the verge of stepping out of their strictly proscribed lives, only to be punished when they nudge even a toe out of bounds. The best and most well-known example is Atonement, in which an unfinished drawing room tryst directly leads to hellish lives cut short by war.
So credit is due to Nigel, Fiona’s doting attendant, with staying in his lane. Fiona is at first content to do likewise; she’s a tenured family-court judge meting out orders about custody rights and children’s health care. McEwan’s novel and the film get their title from a 1989 English law that requires authorities to protect the medical interests of children, even if their parents object to treatment. The story picks up with Fiona parsing over a pair of newborn conjoined twins whose devoutly Catholic parents object to a separation surgery that will kill one of the infants, even though not operating at all is a death sentence for both.
Delivering Fiona’s verdict, Thompson is an image of judicial perfection: impartial without being dismissive, clinical but not uncaring. If this were a BBC courtroom procedural, I’d watch the hell out of it.
Alas, the chamber piece that follows the opening case is a bit of a drag. Fiona’s home life is undynamic by design: Her marriage to her husband, Jack (Stanley Tucci), isn’t quite loveless, but it is sexless, and the lack of physicality has gone on so long that he openly asks to have an affair. The decision seems to upset Fiona, but any processing of Jack’s claimed infidelity and two-day disappearance is processed internally. Jurisprudence waits for no one.
The bulk of McEwan’s story — he wrote the screenplay as well — follows Fiona as she deals a 17-year-old named Adam (Fionn Whitehead, last seen evacuating the beach in Dunkirk), who’s suffering from leukemia but refuses a life-saving blood transfusion because of his Jehovah’s Witness upbringing.
But rather than a potentially gripping legal battle between medicine and people of faith, The Children Act dispatches the actual case fairly quickly in favor of Fiona and Adam’s unusual interests in each other. The judge, whose only hobby seems to be the occasional small piano recital with a barrister friend, seems fascinated that a working-class teenager would have a knack for acoustic guitar and Yeats poems. Adam, interacting perhaps for the first time in his life with someone who’s not a fundamentalist, turns uncomfortably devoted.
Is this relationship romance? Is it social-class voyeurism? Is it stalking? McEwan’s script seems to want it to be a little of all three, without ever cashing in on any of them. After all, this is the polite English society of highbrow fiction, and no one can ever go too far astray.
None of this is Thompson’s fault. She’s great, and commands every scene, even if 90 percent of them require her to remain steely and unflinching. Tucci, though he flits in and out of the narrative, is an able sparring partner. Throw in a background cast of solid British character actors (Ben Chaplin, Anthony Calf, and Jason Watkins as Nigel), and Eyre/McEwan have put together a finely acted slog.
The few times Thompson’s allowed to open an emotional valve, it gushes out. She gets to give a stern lecture, run out of a room, and have a good cry in the rain. Still, Fiona’s pulled back to her lane, leaving us with another McEwanesque lesson on the virtues of dispassion.