Review – McEwan adaptation ‘The Children Act’ never reaches the dramatic heights of its courtroom segments

Poster for 2018 drama film The Children Act

Genre: Drama
Certificate: 12
UK Release Date: 24th August 2018
Runtime: 105 minutes
Director: Richard Eyre
Writer: Ian McEwan
Starring: Emma Thompson, Stanley Tucci, Fionn Whitehead, Ben Chaplin, Eileen Walsh, Jason Watkins
Synopsis: A committed and busy High Court judge is tasked with deciding whether a Jehovah’s Witness boy with leukemia can be given a potentially life-saving blood transfusion.

 

 

This year has seen acclaimed author Ian McEwan take control of his own stories’ movie adaptations. He penned the script for the very variable On Chesil Beach and he is on scripting duties once again for The Children Act, in which he adapts one of his most recent novels into a film that is the ultimate game of two halves. It begins as an engrossing courtroom drama, before crumbling and fumbling its way into the grotesque world of cringeworthy melodrama.

That the first half works as well as it does is largely down to Emma Thompson‘s terrific central performance. She is High Court judge Fiona, referred to by most as “my lady”, and is in the midst of a busy run of cases, culminating in a decision as to whether a hospital can carry out a blood transfusion on a 17-year-old boy with leukemia (Fionn Whitehead), against his Jehovah’s Witness beliefs. At the same time, her busy career has pushed a wedge between Fiona and her university lecturer husband (Stanley Tucci), who has decided he wants to have an affair with a colleague.

Much of the movie relies on the presence of Thompson as a pillar around which the rest of the story can orbit. She’s immediately believable as a woman weighed down by the sheer gravity of the decisions she is forced to make every day and with little time to spend on herself and her husband. Tucci is equally comfortable as a man who was clearly once laidback, but has now attained mastery of the passive-aggressive “mmhmm” sound and feels increasingly undervalued. This is a movie in which every character’s point of view makes complete sense, which only makes the drama of the first half more harrowing.

The narrative begins to turn with the Jehovah’s Witness case, which features some genuinely engrossing courtroom sequences and a moving scene in which Thompson makes the irregular choice to visit Whitehead in hospital. It’s impressive how completely Whitehead, last seen as the de facto lead of Dunkirk, is able to match Thompson blow for blow in this scene, but it’s a high point the movie is never able to hit again. Indeed, the only person other than Thompson who excels in the second half is Jason Watkins, delivering comic relief as the protagonist’s long-suffering court clerk.

That second half is something of a stumbling mess that veers wildly down soapy, melodramatic corridors, only occasionally punctuated by flashes of the spark from the first half. The consistent reprises of Yeats’s ‘Down By the Salley Gardens’ are reliably emotional, but the rest of the story built around those moments lacks all of the confidence that came before it. The subtlety of the relationship between Thompson and Tucci also flounders in the wake of a movie that is struggling to find something to say, as a result of the fact its story ended after the first 45 minutes.

Pop or Poop?

Rating: Pop!

Emma Thompson is absolutely Grade A in The Children Act and, for 45 minutes, it seems as if the film is equal to her talents. However, the movie crumbles like a damp slice of cake after its midpoint and loses sight of its entire reason for existing. The final act is nonsensical and melodramatic, completely ignoring the elegant and compelling foundations that had been built before.

 

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