Complex moral questions on matters of life, death, freedom of religion, and age of consent are seldom main themes of any movie; yet when they are, a rare opportunity arises for the filmmakers to tackle these sensitive topics and to be able to generate a hopefully constructive dialogue.
In director Richard Eyre’s The Children Act, a compelling and mature dialogue is indeed what is generated, but it ultimately fails to reach the levels of sophistication that the thematic material demands. Though the film approaches its subject matter with respect and appropriate emotion, as an audience we seem only to scratch the surface of the deeper meanings of these moral conundrums.
Judge Fiona May (Emma Thompson) has seen it all during her time on the bench of England’s High Court of Justice, yet a case involving a 17-year-old named Adam (Fionn Whitehead) stricken with leukemia seems to have struck the proverbial chord for the seasoned lawmaker. Presented with an ethical quandary, May grapples with whether the boy should be allowed to reject life-saving treatment on the basis of religious belief. Is the boy being influenced unfairly by his Jehovah’s Witness faith? What is the distinction between respecting freedom of religion and the right to intervene medically?
These are questions that cannot obviously be addressed in any real substantial length in a two-hour movie, yet The Children Act does at least get the ball rolling on trying to understand the arguments on both sides. But once the legal conversations have been had and Judge May hands down her ruling in the case, the movie struggles to bring forward a deeper emotional understanding of this mature content.
Based on the 2014 novel of the same name by Ian McEwan (who also wrote the screenplay) The Children Act attempts to juggle a handful of personal themes ranging from the challenges of marriage to the court’s role in deciding appropriate medical treatment. The story has the potential and all the elements to create a very incisive commentary but falls just short.
After a relatively captivating first half (including intelligent and thought-provoking scenes in court) the film transitions into a contrived sob story about the Judge’s failing marriage and Adam’s continued presence in her life after the case has been decided.
The Children Act lacks an emotional and intellectual finish to the story that would complement the legal scenes. The beginning sets us up for a greater two-hour than what is ultimately delivered. This is not to say that the film doesn’t try to have an emotional and smart conclusion (and for many others it may indeed have it) but it fails to sustain the level of sophistication and introspection that is introduced in the first 40 minutes.
A constant silver lining, however, is Emma Thompson’s lead performance, who yet again presents a confident and strong character. With both a solemn and commanding attitude in her work life, and a fragile insecurity in her personal life Thompson’s characterization of Judge May is very real and measured. There is a warmth and a coldness to her, an air of condescension and a heart of motherly goodness. These traits could have been even more effectively used as the film moves forward, but nonetheless, Emma Thompson delivers, which is generally more than enough.
The Children Act is a respectable film that has the courage to tackle some very personal ethical issues, and while it initially does so with a commendable intelligence it ends up falling flat with a banal concluding half. It is particularly disappointing because of the strength of the film’s opening and indeed the very subject matter in which it deals with; it will not be possible to really satisfy and provide answers that these deep questions require with any one work of film or literature, but The Children Act gives up too early. After we are set on the path of looking at these challenging moral dilemmas, we should at least expect to have a somewhat fulfilling conclusion.
As a work of social commentary the film does certainly generate conversation, but does it really add anything new to it? The potential is there but the story stalls, leaving these and other essential philosophical questions to wait for perhaps another work that can approach them with a little more consistency.
Review: The Children Act
Emma Thompson shines but The Children Act struggles to fulfill the potential that its premise entails.