Richard Eyre’s “The Children Act,” which “Atonement” writer Ian McEwan has adapted to from his own novel of the same name, begins with Jude Fiona Maye (an extraordinary Emma Thompson) imposingly perched behind the bench of her London courtroom and adjudicating an urgent case about conjoined twins. If the babies are left attached, both of them will die. If the decision is made to split them apart, then one will live. Each course of action, it could be argued, is its own kind of murder. That’s certainly how Fiona feels about it; cloaked in immense power but still empathetic to a fault, the judge — who ultimately rules in accordance with the 1989 Act of Parliament from which this film gets its title — can’t shake the idea that saving one life would mean ending another. For her, it is “A case of law, not of morals.”
When Fiona returns home to her posh flat and her husband Jack (Stanley Tucci) declares that he “thinks he wants to have an affair,” she suddenly finds herself embroiled in a case of morals, not law. Or maybe not so suddenly, as the (otherwise loving) couple hasn’t had sex in 11 months, and Jack has been complaining to his wife about her workaholic habits for almost as many years. Should both of them suffer so that their marriage can survive, or would it be more humane to allow one partner their freedom while the other is left to feel unwanted? Is life — specifically, a life together — more precious than dignity?
Like so many of the movies that stem from McEwan’s novels, “The Children Act” is a soulful and sophisticated adult drama that peers into the void between the beauty of ideals and the cost of living by them. And, like so many of the movies that stem from McEwan’s novels (such as “Enduring Love,” and TIFF 2017 premiere “On Chesil Beach”), “The Children Act” works best during its first acts, when the story is still setting its terms and carefully moving its characters to the ledge. Once these people are pushed off and forced to forge their own paths back to happiness, things start to test the limits of believability.
Elegiac on both sides and genuinely tortured down the middle, the film doesn’t really get rolling until after Fiona has ruled on the twins, and Jack has already decided to go have sex with a younger woman. A new case comes across the judge’s desk, this one about 17-year-old Adam (“Dunkirk” breakout Fionn Whitehead), who will succumb to leukemia if he doesn’t receive a blood transfusion. The trouble is that Adam is a devout Jehovah’s Witness whose faith teaches that God lives in the blood, and to accept the blood of another person would be as ethically unclean for him as — say — sullying a marriage with an affair might be for someone else. Alas, the boy is a minor, and his fate ultimately rests with Fiona.
In a film that Richard Eyre (“Notes on a Scandal”) directs crisply and with a feeling of quiet precision, Whitehead’s performance sticks out like a free radical. Faintly manic from the moment that he first meets Fiona (whom he refers to as “my lady”), Whitehead plays Adam like a brilliant alien whose faith manifests itself as a surplus of wonder and a complete lack of irony. He’s gobsmacked by Fiona, whose power and dignity would be enough to gobsmack just about anybody, let alone a kid who had never meaningfully interacted with anyone from the secular world. So wide-eyed that you hardly even notice his sickly pallor, Adam is so excitable that it almost feels like he’s making fun of Fiona for caring about him — he’s got all the usual teenage tendencies, but they’re bent towards sincerity instead of sarcasm. It makes for a character who’s as watchable as he is difficult to believe.
On the other hand, Fiona is largely defined by whether she believes Adam, and what Adam makes her believe about herself. Thompson, who’s never needed to play a judge in order to be commanding, inhabits Fiona as a woman who’s constantly judging herself in secret, every guilty verdict reflecting some guilt of her own. As her relationship with Adam grows uneasily obsessive, “The Children Act” begins to steer towards melodrama, McEwan’s script becoming even more schematic and sensationalized than his book (now there’s even a climactic race across town).
But Thompson powers right through the histrionic moments that the movie lays out for her; in a story that extrapolates everyday domestic matters into life-or-death scenarios (and vice-versa), the actress’ studied tremble is all that always sustains the connection between the two. It’s through her that we feel the heartache of an empty home, through her that our attention is returned to the things that each of us has to lose so that we can manage to live. No matter how iffy the story gets, or how clinical Eyre’s direction becomes, Thompson makes it absolutely heartrending to watch Fiona’s veneer crack one line at a time.
All lives are compromised at some point along the way, but something about that simple fact registers a lot deeper when you’re hearing it from Emma Thompson, and hanging on her every word. This is a bittersweet story, even at its happiest, but it’s strangely comforting to arrive its moral and be met there by someone who’s always seemed to be above such mortal concerns, both onscreen and off.
“The Children Act” premiered at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival. A24 and DirectTV will release it in the United States in 2018.