Toronto review: The Children Act – Emma Thompson explores the heart of a judge

Thompson’s Justice Maye weighs lives and loves in the balance in this restrained tragedy, adapted by Ian McEwan from his own novel and consummately directed by Richard Eyre.

Tom Charity
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Emma Thompson as high court judge Fiona Maye with Fionn Whitehead as Adam in Richard Eyre’s adaptation of Ian McEwan’s The Children Act

No sex please, we’re British! After the wedding night woes of On Chesil Beach, which also screened at the Toronto Film Festival this week, Ian McEwan gives us a deeply rooted marriage falling apart after 11 months of sexual abstinence in this classy adaptation of his 2014 novel of the same name. (McEwan scripted both films.)

Jack (Stanley Tucci) craves intimacy but his wife Fiona (Emma Thompson) is preoccupied with weightier matters: she is a high court judge, and her life-and-death deliberations make sexual relations something less than an afterthought. But when her husband announces he means to have an affair she doesn’t hesitate to show him the door. It’s upsetting, but her latest case soon takes precedence: Adam (Fionn Whitehead), a 17-year-old Jehovah’s Witness, is refusing the blood transfusion that would save his life. To the court’s surprise, Judge Maye decides to honour the parents’ wishes and visit the boy in hospital before delivering her verdict. It’s an unorthodox move that will have profound ramifications.

Directed with immaculate poise and discretion by Richard Eyre, who propels us into high society with such ease you feel you belong there, The Children Act is a meticulously calibrated drama worthy of Claude Sautet, and not just a distinguished example of the kind of ‘masterpiece theatre’ the British film industry reliably coughs up for awards consideration. (Though in that regard, Emma Thompson will undoubtedly figure in the conversation; she hasn’t enjoyed a role this rich in some time and she has arguably never been better.)

Whether she’s dispensing legal judgments in measured, lucid paragraphs, or putting Jack in his place with swift, barbed rejoinders, Justice Maye presents a formidable intellect and an enviably composed demeanour. But of course the cracks in this veneer are what make the portrait so compelling: her uncharacteristic impatience and fragility the day Jack leaves; and the bond she allows herself to forge with the ailing teenager as a result.

The film’s interest in the thorny ethics of involuntary medical intervention could have been pulled from this summer’s news headlines, but the title is a red herring and the learned arguments are really neither here nor there. This isn’t that film. What interests McEwan, Eyre et al more is exploring the strange debt Fiona incurs, not so much by overriding Adam’s objections and empowering the doctors to save him, but by offering him a more vivid and romantic sense of himself, a vision more inspiring, even, than what the Jehovah Witnesses call “the Truth”.

The dynamics are intriguing: the older woman who could be the boy’s mother (and Fiona has no children of her own); and the woman of authority in a predominantly male world, whose autonomy is in fact severely prescribed by her position. The film’s tragedy is that Fiona can only pay lip service (literally, through poetry, and song, and in one stolen, solitary kiss) to the idea of a secular love she has awakened in the impressionable adolescent.

Yet it isn’t quite right to call the film a love story. Rather, this is a heartbreaking lament for loves lost and lives unrealised, a restrained, nuanced movie about nuance and restraint.

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