There are two types of people in this world: those who read Ian McEwan, and those who do not. The first camp of people also enjoy the films of Douglas Sirk and gazing out of windows when it’s raining to think about life. The second are much more like you and me, and just want to see a solid, Oscar-worthy film. The Children Act was brilliant, but it also gave off an unavoidable, nagging feeling that something was wrong. The problem really is simple: it was made by people on the wrong side of the Ian McEwan fence. Yes, the writer of both the novel and the screenplay successfully overcooked his own material. I’m angry because a film so thoughtfully researched, shot and acted could have been so brilliant, but was undercut by a clumsy melodramatic cliff that it stumbles off midway through.
Okay, maybe I’ve been a little harsh. The Children Act was a powerful courtroom drama concerning a religious and moral dilemma, about life and death, and other lofty themes. Performances were brilliant, production was flawless: gorgeous sets, well-thought-out cinematography with landscapes and a crisp, bright view of London shot in impeccably high resolution. The movie has been widely praised for its dedication to women in the legal profession and it’s really difficult to talk about because it has some excellent, heartbreaking performances, especially from Emma Thompson and a piercing, intense Fionn Whitehead. It actually hurt to see them in such tricky situations. But for such fantastic efforts on their front, I honestly felt like the film was really let down by clunky plot devices and was unable to fully recover, slipping one too many times into cliché.
The Children Act
Director: Richard Eyre
Release date: September 21, 2018
In both her personal and private life, Fiona Maye (Emma Thompson at her best) is superbly resilient, a no-nonsense, cool veneer shrouding her judgments. When her sidelined husband of 20 years, Jack (Stanley Tucci), openly announces that he’d like to have an affair (“How generous of you to let me know,” Thompson remarks – anyone else sensing Love, Actually?), you can tell that this marriage of two esteemed professionals is wilting. But of course, we knew that much earlier – director Richard Eyre (Notes on a Scandal; Iris) is very economical when it comes to showing how people feel through their actions and reactions. Judge Maye branded a baby-murderer in the first few minutes gives us enough of the sense of the hostile and unforgiving world she inhabits, so the news of the separation doesn’t come as a complete surprise.
This telenovela bombshell coincides with an urgent, life-and-death case she’s facing with a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses who, bound by their religion, refuse a life-saving blood transplant for their critically ill son, Adam. Is there some kind of religious allusion going on: Adam was the first man God gave life, and now he’s taking it away? Whatever the case, it’s in Judge Maye’s hands and things get tricky – really tricky.
Compared with On Chesil Beach earlier this summer, well, I’m just wondering what exactly is up with Mr. McEwan. First, why have two of your novels adapted for the screen within months of each other, and then write the screenplay for both? And then there’s the ongoing pattern of individuals suffering at the hands of tradition, and I think he might just be having a teeny-tiny dig at certain religious groups and their role in some (cough) societal problems – don’t you?
Anyway, the Children Act in question is a law that proposes that parents and guardians must act in the best interest of minors, and it’s the case with 17-year-old Adam. After heated words are exchanged in court, Maye takes the unusual step of visiting him at his bedside – there’s a surprising, intense encounter and after that, her choice seems obvious. What really kept me gripped was the fallout of Maye’s decision. It seems as if her acts of kindness come back to haunt her, and her earlier statement that “this is a court of law, not of morals” is challenged as her personal life is deeply affected by her work.
The dense social and political commentary is all worth thinking about, but even the use of music as a counterbalance to the drama – a sincere passion of McEwan’s, since it also plays a central role in On Chesil Beach – is used for highly theatrical effect. The rehearsals for a Christmas concert act as a Maye-o-meter, indicating her psychological state for us, until finally, she reaches the concert, a touching but highly signposted emotional climax. It’s things like this which give away lazy writing and makes a good film – well, not so good.
On the whole, I think Ian McEwan is just a little more conservative then he’d have us believe, trimming the finale up neatly, like a novel. At almost two hours, The Children Act was pushing on the boundaries of a courtroom serial, and it seems that some novels just work better as novels than as films. But there’s little doubt it will be up for a few statuette nominations next year, if only for the heartfelt performances which made the best of an imperfect script.