Inside Story

An adaptation for grown-ups

Cinema | The Children Act succeeds because of its ideas as much as its narrative

Brian McFarlane 6 December 2018 979 words

Superb control: Emma Thompson and Fionn Whitehead in The Children Act.

Not since Graham Greene, perhaps, has an English novelist enjoyed as fortunate a run with cinema adaptations as Ian McEwan. An author whose books very successfully straddle the literary/popular divide, his recent transfers to film include Enduring Love (2004), Atonement (2007), the TV adaptation of The Child in Time (2017), and On Chesil Beach (2017), all of them films of serious quality with notable interaction of character, incident and ideas. He was also the screenwriter of On Chesil Beach and, as someone who expects adaptation to offer something new, I felt that he found in that process some new insights into the likely afterlives of his protagonists.

Since The Ploughman’s Lunch (1983), his first brush with cinema, McEwan has written the screenplays for several of the screen versions of his novels, and this is again the case with The Children Act, an absorbing adaptation of one of his toughest works. He is reunited here after twenty-five years with director Richard Eyre, who also directed The Ploughman’s Lunch. Eyre, in a sort of parallel with McEwan, has also won plaudits for achievements in two media: not only has he directed such memorable screen fare as the two Judi Dench starrers, Iris (2001) and Notes on a Scandal (2006), but he is also a formidable, award-winning stage director.

The third name that gets one excited about the new film is that of Emma Thompson, and I’ll come back to her shortly. Enough to say now that her performance holds together McEwan’s complexity of ideas and the subtleties of Eyre’s direction. It’s not all that common to find a film dealing in ideas, but in this matter The Children Act is wholly intended for grown-ups — or for very alert teenagers like the boy whose plight is at the centre of its drama and dialectic. McEwan obviously had to shrink his novel in the interests of the film’s running-time, but he has contrived to retain — and dramatise — the same sense of belief and actuality, and law and morality, pulling at each other.

Thompson plays Fiona Maye, a High Court judge we first glimpse typing away at night in the vast apartment block where she lives with her husband Jack (Stanley Tucci), who soon won’t be living there. Her obsession with her work in the family division has reached the point where it has undermined her marriage. The film makes quite clear how and why the sorts of cases on which she has to pronounce judgement might have led to this pass.

The drama of her life is in her handling of such demanding possibilities. She simply can’t respond to her husband’s suggestion of a night at the opera — nor to his bald statement, “I want an affair.” “When did we last have sex?” he asks, and she can’t remember. What is persuasive is the way the film manages to suggest that they may love each other but that their marriage is foundering because “the law can take over your life.” Jack, a decent but now sexually needy man, leaves.

Fiona’s most recent court experience has involved the proposed separation of conjoined twins: either she allows it to go ahead, in which case one will die because of key shared organs, or she does not, in which case both will die. Either outcome will bring grief to the parents, but she has to be guided by what the law allows or, indeed, requires. “This is a court of law, not of morals,” she says from the bench with impressive command and dignity.

This may well be the central issue of all Fiona’s decisions, but the film also suggests persuasively that she is partly the product of this requirement of her profession. Perhaps it stands in the way of any compromise in her domestic life.

The case at the film’s heart involves a boy of seventeen, Adam Henry (Fionn Whitehead), who will die of leukaemia without the blood transfusion that he and his Jehovah’s Witness parents are refusing. The film’s emotional charge is toughened, but never sentimentalised, by Fiona’s own childlessness, as well as by the marriage disintegration, but in her magisterial grasp of the sources of strain Thompson enjoins unfailing empathy in the viewer. Fiona is work-bound and has been barely aware of the marital aridity in which she and Jack have been living.

The case of Adam Henry unsettles her professional firmness. The media scrum outside the court contrasts with the rigour of the courtroom, where she presides over the hearing in which medical experts, counsels for and against the transfusion, and the father all put their cases. Andrew Dunn’s camera prowls the courtroom, focusing on each in turn, before moving very slowly to Fiona’s face as she ponders the various testimonies. She must weigh the prediction of an expert witness — that it will be “a horrible death” — against what the Henrys see as the ultimate test of their faith.

The turning point comes when Fiona realises that, after so much careful listening, she needs to speak to Adam himself. The film moves to the hospital, where a surprising and moving rapport is struck between the two: the highly intelligent seventeen-year-old boy and the fifty-nine-year-old judge. For those unfamiliar with the book and planning to see the film, I won’t give further details, except to say that, though touching and wholly convincing, their relationship is not what you might expect, and it is acted with superb control of nuance by Thompson and Whitehead.

I should add that the cast is full of striking character players — including Nicholas Jones as the steely expert witness and, in a witty three-minute cameo, Rupert Vansittart as a wildly sceptical colleague of Fiona’s — which enrich the texture of this fluently written and directed film with its equal respect for ideas and narrative power. •