REVIEW: Emma Thompson Wields the Weight of Power In 'The Children Act'

Based on Ian McEwan's novel of the same title, "The Children Act" searches for truth on what it means to be human

Sep 24, 2018 at 1:29 pm
click to enlarge Emma Thompson stars as Judge Fiona Maye in "The Children Act." - Photo: A24
Photo: A24
Emma Thompson stars as Judge Fiona Maye in "The Children Act."

The Children Act, based on Ian McEwan’s novel of the same name, thrives in the movement of restraint. It’s felt almost exclusively — in the chip-chop of stiff shoes in echo-y, stuffy courthouse rooms; sterilized white-walled hospital rooms; in the mention of a sexless marriage; and as this film’s subject, Fiona Maye, hovers her fingers over piano keys.

Emma Thompson, who portrays Maye, does so with remarkable intelligence and ability. Though the character — a British High Court judge — seemingly is solely dedicated to her work, her attempts to conceal her inner world are wholly felt through fleeting expressions and moments. From her seat in the courtroom, clad in a starkly-black robe, she is god-like. That her decisions have profound impact on the lives splayed out and dissected feels squirmish.

But Thompson’s performance is what moves this film. The core of the plot comes when she must make a life-altering decision regarding a 17-year-old boy just months from his 18th birthday. Adam Henry, played earnestly by Fionn Whitehead, has leukemia and needs a blood transfusion to live. As a Jehovah’s Witness — believing that to take another’s blood into his own veins would taint God’s sacred gift — he refuses.

“Why is blood so important to God?” begs one scene. Can a teenager on the verge of legal adulthood possibly weigh a question so heavy when it depends on life or death? In an unorthodox move, Maye visits the hospital herself to speak to him. Together, she teaches him to play W.B. Yeats’ “Down by the Salley Gardens” on guitar as hazy London light creeps from an otherwise dreary cityscape.

Because he is only 17, she ultimately rules that the doctors are allowed to give Adam a transfusion, claiming that his religious beliefs were “hostile” to his own well-being. And, for now, he’s saved. As anyone who has lost faith in a belief they once held highly might understand, to lose religion is a death of being in itself.

“Once you replace the Witness, why replace it with another?” he asks, after following Maye to a party in cold, torrential rain. For Adam, Maye’s words became his guiding truth.

There are other underlying factors at work: her marriage is at crossroads, seemingly non-existent as she buries herself in work; the boy’s behavior is borderline stalkerish and, as she admits later in the film, law has consumed her.

The prim, sorrowful creaks of the soundtrack become a character itself. Piano notes linger, amplifying the unsaid. As Maye walks down a shady corridor in a black dress, her singularity feels damming. Transposed with a memory of a happier time, she plays a jaunty melody via piano as friends raise a toast behind her. Her dress is pale blue. She kisses her husband passionately, lips parted. In present-day, that same husband, Jack ( Stanley Tucci) claims that he’s going to have an affair — it’s been 11 months since they last had sex. “Do you remember how we were?" he asks. The question looms. 

At times The Children Act is overly proper and languid. Henry’s character feels more like a foil then a force of his own, which is a loss since the questions looming above him make for fascinating material. Despite its staunch seriousness, the film makes a seemingly untouchable woman feel human and explores plaguing existential questions both universally and individually-based with remarkable precision.

One of the final moments of the film resound: “My choice, my lady” — because ultimately, that’s all life leaves us. In the end, restraint is lost, even in the well-worn code of law we’re all told to live by. Grade: B 

The Children Act opens at the Mariemont Theatre this week. For more info, visit