The Children Act (2017) ☆☆☆(3/4): An intelligent adult drama on law and ethics

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“The Children Act” is an intelligent adult drama which actually made me muse on its subjects during my viewing. While thoughtfully presenting a difficult legal/ethical matter of life and death during its first half, the movie lets us understand how its heroine comes to make a hard decision on that matter in question, and then it becomes more interesting with her tricky emotional situation during its second half. Although it is not entirely without flaws, the overall result is still fairly absorbing thank to its smart screenplay, competent direction, and solid performance, and its several powerful moments will linger on you for a while after it is over.

The heroine of the movie is a middle-aged judge named Fiona Maey (Emma Thomspon), who has worked at the High Court of Justice of England and Wales for many years. During the opening scene, we see her focusing on her latest case, which is about whether a separation surgery on two conjoined twin brothers should be allowed or not. While both of them will eventually die if the surgery is not performed on them, one of them will definitely die because of the surgery, and their parents believe that it is not right to perform the surgery on them. As the case has drawn lots of attention from the media and the public, Fiona certainly feels lots of pressure, but she sticks to her firm legal belief in the end, and she soon moves onto other cases to be handled.

And then there suddenly comes an urgent case which must be handled as soon as possible. It is about a 17-year-old leukemia patient named Adam Henry (Fionn Whitehead), and he has been refusing a blood transfusion because he and his parents are Jehovah’s Witness followers. Although blood transfusion is absolutely necessary for treating his severe case of leukemia, Adam remains adamant about his decision, and his parents respect their son’s decision even though they do not want to lose their dear son.

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While presiding over the case, Fiona makes an impromptu move at one point. For confirming what is really best for him, she decides to meet Adam for herself, so she soon goes to a hospital where he is at present. At first, their conversation feels strained as Adam keeps sticking to his position as before, but then the mood becomes a little softened as he plays guitar and she sings “Down by the Salley Gardens”, whose lyric comes from a poem by William Butler Yeats.

After her meeting with Adam, Fiona eventually makes a decision. Judging that children’s welfare comes first above all things, she grants Adam’s blood transfusion, and Adam immediately receives a blood transfusion. When he approaches to Fiona some time later, he looks much better, and he shows some gratitude to her, but it also seems that he wants something from her. Clearly confused about his new life, he keeps coming to Fiona as emphasizing how meaningful their meeting was to him, and Fiona gradually feels nervous as trying to cope with this unexpected complication.

And she has other problem to deal with. As she has been constantly busy with her work for years, Fiona’s relationship with her husband Jack (Stanley Tucci) has been quite estranged, and he even suggests that she should allow him to have an affair. Although he is stuck in a thankless role, Tucci ably supports his co-star during their scenes, and we can sense many years of life between their characters even when they do not say much.

As Fiona feels conflicted about her growing private matters, the movie slowly dials up the level of emotional tension on the screen, and its drama eventually culminates to a crucial moment later in the story. While Fiona is attending a meeting held in Newcastle, Adam comes to her again, and she comes to see more of how Adam feels about her. As she steadily maintains her usual unflappable appearance, he tries hard to articulate whatever is churning inside his mind, but he only comes to make the situation more complicated in the end, and she is not so pleased about what just happens between them.

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The movie is based on the novel of the same name by Ian McEwan, who also adapted the novel for the film. I have not read the novel yet, but his adapted screenplay is mostly engaging with considerable wit and intelligence, though there are several parts which do not work as well as intended. Besides its rather underdeveloped supporting characters, his screenplay is often hampered by some ham-fisted moments such as the one associated with a silly joke which is not that funny to me.

Anyway, the movie is supported by its two excellent main performances. Emma Thompson, a wonderful actress who has always delighted us for many years, is superb in her nuanced acting, and she is particularly terrific when her character cannot help but swept by her emotion in the middle of an important annual event. Fionn Whitehead, who drew our attention for the first time via his breakthrough turn in “Dunkirk”, is devastating when his character makes a certain active choice around the end of the story, and he confirms here again that he is a new talented actor to watch.

“The Children Act” is directed by Richard Eyre, who previously directed “Iris” (2001) and “Notes on a Scandal” (2006). Like these two previous films of his, “The Children Act” is a good film equipped with strong performances worthwhile to watch, and it is too bad that the movie was quickly forgotten shortly after it was released in US during last month. It is not flawless at all, but it is more interesting than many of those superficial blockbuster films out there, and I think you should give it a chance someday.

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