the age of Solomon, society has looked for righteousness in matters
large and small at the hands of learned and impartial judges. That
trusted position has been a lynchpin of dramatic cinema. With so many
stories set in and around the courtroom, a movie featuring a jurist has
to do a lot to stand out. Based on the novel by Ian McEwan, Director
Richard Eyre’s THE CHILDREN ACT very much does so by virtue of its
unusual premise and a mesmerisingly powerful performance by Emma
Thompson at its centre.
High Court family law judge, Fiona Maye’s life is about balance; whether
it’s the scales of justice under which she serves, her balance of the
law versus human emotion, or the heavy demands of her work against the
normalcies of married life. The judge is renowned for her brisk court
conduct and clear-eyed and precise rulings. It is a surprise then, that
Fiona takes a step far beyond expectation during a case of a sick minor.
seventeen-year-old boy just months from adulthood is dying. He is in
hospital, in desperate need of a blood transfusion that has every chance
to save his life. Young Adam and his parents are devout Jehovah’s
Witnesses, and any transference of blood is a mortal sin. To their
faith, to die of the leukemia ravaging the boy’s body is preferable to
the eternal damnation he will face in the afterlife if he undergoes the
Adam is so close to being legally able to decide the matter for himself,
Fiona decides to travel to his hospital and see the young man, as both
the prosecution, seeking the transfusion, and the family’s defence agree
that Adam is a boy like no other. Rail-thin and luminously pale, Adam
greets the expected judge with a light in his eyes that seems almost
manic in his excitement that a person of Fiona’s status would personally
visit and ask about his care. Adam answers all of Fiona’s questions
like the devoted acolyte of the Watchtower he was raised to be. It is
only when Fiona hands him the guitar that seems to be the boy’s only
entertainment while hooked up to life-saving machines, that his fervor
slips even a notch, as Fiona, also a music lover, encourages his
decides that although his time as a minor is short, the law is clear
that Adam’s life must be saved, and so the transfusion goes through, as
the boy and his parents tearfully look on.
Whilst in the middle of this life-saving determination, it is Fiona’s
home life that is failing, as her college professor husband has
announced that he intends to have an affair with a student. Her
devastation is placed in small, tight compartments, as, true to Fiona’s
character, she remains all business on the bench. Dreading to return
home to an empty flat, sinking into Adam’s case serves as a catharsis
and escape that allows her to deflect her pain.
Indeed, months later, Fiona is getting on with things, when Adam, the
young man she saved, suddenly stands before her. He is awkward and
incoherent about just what he’s doing; clearly having tracked her down.
His puppyish adoration is evident, even if he cannot verbalise it.
Fiona is perfectly level-headed and understanding, even as she tells the
boy to go on and live his life as well as he can, without looking back.
It’s hard advice for Adam, who continues to follow her movements;
eventually begging her to let him live with her. Adam goes one stalk
too far, and Fiona firmly dismisses him.
THE CHILDREN ACT is a tour de force by its star, Emma Thompson. She
shows us a series of beautifully rendered fragments of nuance,
tenderness, emotion, and strength in a performance so taut and
breathtaking, it was like watching a ballet dancer on a tightrope.
Fiona never forgets that at her core, she is simply a person who wants
to help children. Her steely, disciplined bench appearances are never
without heart or consideration for the families she’s affecting. The
scene when she renders Adam’s verdict is like a breath released one
didn’t know they were holding, for both the audience and Fiona, as we
see her surety that there was a indeed a legal way to keep the very
special boy who seemed to shine from inside, alive.
feel heart-wrenching tightness unto bursting watching Fiona go on every
day in a profession where emotion cannot abide, knowing that her
lifelong love has betrayed her. Carefully, Thompson weaves the
inescapable frisson of attraction at Adam’s ardent attention at the time
Fiona felt most lonely and unloved, as well as the secret
considerations, and the inevitable regrets.
chemistry is created with Fionn Whitehead as the young man prepared to
die for his faith. When we first meet the moptopped youth, he has the
glowing eyes and wild grin of a zealot, and the hyperactive demeanor of
a child, or someone on a lot of drugs -- of which Adam is both. In his
purity when fiercely defending his beliefs, or the joy when playing a
duet with Fiona, he resembles a gaunt, pre-adult version of a Raphael
Strangely, his Adam seemed more sure and steady in the grip of death,
than once he’s up and living a normal life again. We understand his
pull toward Fiona as part superhero, part mother, and the desperate,
all-encompassing crush of a sheltered teen whose life she had literally
one fly in the ointment is the relationship between Fiona and her
American husband, Jack, played by Stanley Tucci. It’s about ten minutes
in when he packs up after making his big infidelity announcement, and
the audience is ready to throw footwear. All his justifications for
wanting to cheat seem trite and far too typical, and of course, loom
around to his philandering ultimately being Fiona’s fault. All that
judging work she’s doing? Bahhh…
Neither do we understand what he thinks any self-respecting person who
had no clue their spouse was considering straying is supposed to do when
faced with such a betrayal? Did he expect her to accept his sleeping
around? It is a moment that displays the difference between British and
American manners that Jack somehow lived to walk out the door on his own
power. Bad enough our heroine must reel from a gut punch right off the
bat, but after Jack comes crawling back, literally days later --
ostensibly rejected by his new chippy – that he expects not only to be
let into their flat, but is disappointed Fiona won’t allow him into
their bedroom, bears incredulity.
story goes on, and the pressure of what to do about Adam rises, Jack
slowly worms his way back into Fiona’s life, simply by hanging around
like a remora when she’s at her lowest (Second lowest, perhaps, after
her man declaring he’s dumping her for a college coed.). It was
very unsatisfying to see this brilliant woman “rewarded” with the return
of this cheating louse, and while I venture it was meant to imply that
Fiona was not made of steel, and that a strong marriage can go on even
in the face of such blatant perfidy; the ease of his return was an
insult to Fiona’s character.
one benefit of that smarmy development is a too-little told lesson of
finding an anchor of sanity and self in work one loves, and refusing to
let anyone take it away. Fiona’s service as a judge isn’t a career, as
much as a calling that she devotes herself to unquestioningly.
CHILDREN ACT is a masterful study of intricate nuances of passion and
abstention. A delicate and compelling exploration of the
heartbreak of chances not taken, and kindred souls that can never truly
meet. Embrace this film for the joy of a perfect Emma Thompson
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