Ian McEwan writes great novels that most often turn into problematic movies, some wonderful (Atonement), others WTF happened (On Chesil Beach). The Children Act falls somewhere in the middle, bolstered by a supremely confident and indelibly moving performance from Emma Thompson as a family court judge trying to practice what the law preaches. Thompson plays Fiona Maye, who has dedicated her life to the principles set forth in the 1989 British law known as the Children Act, which protects and prizes the welfare of minors. So devoted is Fiona to the cause that she has let her childless, 30-year marriage to husband Jack (Stanley Tucci) fall by the wayside. This neglect prompts Jack to ask permission to seek sexual gratification elsewhere. That his cruel choice is a younger woman prompts Fiona to file for divorce.
Such a contrivance feels like pure soap opera, though Thompson and Tucci play it for real. But the soul of the film, directed by Richard Eyre (Notes On a Scandal, Iris) from a script by McEwan himself, rests with Fiona in court. The case in point involves Adam Henry (Fionn Whitehead), a 17-year-old Jehovah’s Witness whose religious parents (Ben Chaplin and Eileen Walsh) argue against a blood transfusion that might save his life. In an unprecedented move, Fiona visits the boy in the hospital, trying to understand why this talented, young poet and musician would choose to let leukemia do him in at the expense of a full and promising future.
From the moment Fiona sings the lyrics of Yeats’ “Down by the Salley Gardens” while Adam strums on a guitar, there is little doubt that Fiona will opt for life. No spoilers here, the event happens early. What raises the bar in McEwan’s novel and Eyre’s too stolid film version is how Fiona’s decision affects her own life as powerfully as the boy’s. Ready to mark the case closed and move on, Fiona is astonished that Adam will not leave her alone. He follows her out of town on a business trip, insisting on a closer relationship with this woman who has acted for his benefit against his own faith. Fiona is accustomed to being treated with the formality her position warrants. Even outside chambers, her court clerk Nigel Pauling (Jason Watkins) addresses Fiona as “My Lady.” But Adam is blunt and personal, demanding to know what “My Lady” is going to do with this life she’s pulled from the fire. In a powerful scene, in which the boy looks at Fiona with a mix of desire and obsession, Thompson reveals a woman buffeted by forces she’s labored for decades to keep at a safe distance. She’s not safe anymore.
The Children Act never again reaches the intimate heights of that transcendent moment. Its resolution feels more by-the-book. But Thompson never disappoints, nailing every nuance of a judge who lets the world in at the cost of losing her own judgment. This is acting of the highest order.