Sometimes great performances can propel material to be greater than the actual product. Such is the case with THE CHILDREN ACT, a film with an interesting concept but an ultimately lackluster payoff that gets a power boost with wonderful performances from Emma Thompson and Stanley Tucci.
Fiona Maye (Thompson) is a strong, thoughtfully decisive, British High Court judge. As she should, Fiona takes her profession very seriously, ruling on life-changing decisions, sometimes life or death decisions involving children. However, her drive and focus has caused her to be absent in her own marriage and prevented the two from having children of their own. Increasingly frustrated, Fiona’s husband, Jack (Tucci), makes a shocking revelation.
In the midst of her marital crisis, Fiona must rule on a case involving the life of a seventeen-year-old boy named Adam (DUNKIRK’s Fionn Whitehead) dying from Leukemia. Adam and his parents are Jehovah’s Witness who are refusing a life-saving blood transfusion based on religious grounds. But because Adam is still a few weeks from his eighteenth birthday, he cannot make that decision and is therefore put at the mercy of the court, or more specifically, Fiona.
Adapted by Ian McEwan (ATONEMENT) from his own novel, THE CHILDREN ACT has a mostly interesting concept. The simple idea of a judge ruling on a life-changing legal case concerning the survival of a teenage boy is compelling. And when you add Emma Thompson to the role it becomes a film with huge potential. However, the specific scenario at hand, or at least the way it is portrayed within the film, does not have as much gray issue of what is right or wrong as I believe it hopes to have. I personally have a very faith-based, practical view on the subject, which contrary to what some may think, go hand in hand. Without giving too much of the story away, I’ll just say that I agree with the decision that is made.
But THE CHILDREN ACT isn’t necessarily about the decision itself but how the decision affects the characters. This is where the film, I believe, fails to connect with the audience. While the characters and their relationships are interesting (the parents involvement are given little consideration), I never felt emotionally connected. The two issues of Fiona’s marital woes and her relationship with the boy don’t fully impact one another other than adding another layer to a fascinating character and being a catalyst to some of her choices.
Director Richard Eyre (NOTES ON A SCANDAL, IRIS) keeps things simple as usual, wisely relying mostly on his actors. Outside a couple of odd choices within the screenplay, THE CHILDREN ACT is an aptly albeit somewhat unmemorable film with little payoff or connection. The saving grace that does give a lasting impression is from the powerful performance from two-time Oscar winner Emma Thompson (Best Screenplay for SENSE AND SENSIBILITY and Best Actress for HOWARD’S END). While I think there is potential for a better film, THE CHILDREN ACT is still worthy seeing for Thompson and Tucci.
THE CHILDREN ACT wants to have a more challenging premise in evaluating choices but works better as a character portrait of strength and devotion.