In The Children Act, newly damed Emma Thompson is Fiona Maye, a British children’s court justice who presides over the most complicated of issues. We first see her intervening when parents refuse to have their conjoined twins separated, knowing that one of them, instead of both, would die. Next is a trial that becomes the subject of the film: when a seventeen-year-old refuses a critical blood transfusion because it conflicts with his Jehovah’s Witness beliefs. It is a problem that Fiona wrestles with in depth.
Meanwhile, disgruntled parents and media spin make her job more difficult. But the real crisis always at the back of Fiona’s mind is the issue of her marriage. She is consumed by her work, and when her alienated husband Jack (Stanley Tucci) openly announces his intention to have an affair unless she prioritises her marriage, she becomes even more closed down to any matters besides those she deems as the real life-and-death issues of her job.
Tucci’s character is rather lacking. The movie avoids eliciting our sympathy for his dissatisfaction, nor does it want to make him look like the bad guy. It takes a middle-ground of insipid reasonableness. The intention might be to avoid making him a cliché, and granted, some people are infuriatingly placid, but this approach doesn’t help raise the stakes. In fact, flimsy characterisation may be the problem of The Children Act.
From here, the film becomes mostly about the progress of the Jehovah’s Witness boy Adam (Fionn Whitehead), who develops a fixation on Fiona, and he is not a very interesting character either. Actually, the whole predicament feels like a subplot, so it comes as an annoyance when it keeps intruding. It may be intended to be a reflection of, or provide an insight into Fiona’s marriage, and certainly she uses her interest in the boy as an escape. But in other ways, the two lines are mostly unrelated, so there’s no great moment of resolution to be had. It seems likely that the writer wanted the situations to integrate much more profoundly.
The Children Act is penned by renowned author Ian McEwan, based on his novel by the same name, and it does intend to develop interesting real-world people and situations outside of popcorn movie genre-trappings. But the tele-movie direction by Richard Eyre appears to have done McEwan no favours. With tonal confusion and crises that don’t really hit home, it suffers from clear or skilful vision. However, its saving grace is Thompson, whose raw and honest performance might make The Children Act worth having on the telly. Maybe in the background on a Sunday night, when you’re packing ham sandwiches for the week.