Cinema review: The Children Act

If you can remember Ian McEwan’s novel Enduring Love (adapted for the screen in 2004), you will have some idea of the strange emotional territory that veteran director Richard Eyre’s new movie explores. This time, McEwan has also written the screenplay of his book, and if it’s not as unnerving as Enduring Love (the ‘lover’ is harmless, rather than psychotic), it is in every other way just as absorbing. The peerless Emma Thompson plays Fiona Maye, a family court judge who, over the years, has let her job become her life, to the detriment of her marriage to university lecturer Jack (Stanley Tucci). When the case comes before her of seventeen-year-old Adam (Fionn Whitehead), who, with the assent of his parents as Jehovah’s Witnesses, steadfastly refuses a blood transfusion that will save him from certain death, she must decide whether or not, because he is still a minor, she should overrule his wishes. It is a complex question that involves the law, religious freedom, and the dignity of the individual. To help her arrive at a better-informed conclusion, Fiona visits Adam in hospital. The boy is immediately taken with My Lady and when she sings WB Yeats’s Down by the Salley Gardens to him it is as though he has been cast under a spell. As a pivotal moment in the drama, it is sublime (Eyre did something similarly transfixing with Kate Winslet singing A lark in the clear air in 2001’s Iris). As smitten as the boy is, so too is Fiona suddenly susceptible to the ‘human condition’ that we cope with on a daily basis – her marriage is crumbling and the bench, from which she views the world on high, is no longer a safe harbour from the storms of the heart. It is a beautiful performance from Thompson, subtly exposing the frailties and uncertainties of a woman whose career has been built on inner strength and clarity of vision. Whitehead impresses as the dreamer while Tucci, as always, is rock solid. A must see.

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