The Children Act review: Emma Thompson delivers an astonishingly elegant and fluent performance as a high court judge with both personal and professional dilemmas in this superb adaptation.

The Children Act review by Paul Heath.

The Children Act review
The Children Act review

Ian McEwan adapts his own source material in Richard Eyre’s film which teams British screen icon with exciting new rising star Fionn Whitehead, who we last saw in this summer’s Dunkirk.

Thompson plays hard-working, and indeed hardened London high court Judge Fiona Maye, an expert in high-profile cases, and particularly those that involve minors. The film opens with Maye presiding over a case involving conjoined twins where she rules that they must be separated despite the fact that one of them will almost certainly be killed as a result. It is apparent that although being married for over 30 years, Maye doesn’t have kid of her own, but she does have a loyal husband in Stanley Tucci’s college lecturer. They live in swanky central London’s Gray’s Inn Square, but over the past year or so Jack has become impatient with Fiona’s long, unrelenting hours and their distinct lack of intimacy.

Early on in the film, Jack seeks Fiona’s approval to having an affair with a 28-year-old work colleague, something that she quickly refuses. This pressurises Jack into leaving despite revealing that he is still very much in love with her despite having needs as a man physically. Naturally, Fiona is devastated, but has to continue to work on a case that has just come her way – the case of 17-year-old Adam (Whitehead). Adam is battling lieukemia, and is refusing to a blood transfusion as he, and his devote family are members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Taking a slightly unusual approach, Fiona must decide which course of action to take, while at the same time dealing with the pressure her new change in circumstance in her personal life.

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The Children Act was actually a delight here at the Toronto International Film Festival where it plays in a special presentation. McEwan’s story is complex, but skillfully brought to life through his tight screenplay, Eyre’s careful direction, and of course the dynamite performances of its central cast.

In only his second major role, following this year’s Dunkirk. Whitehead is solid as the character of Adam. Very much a supporting role, Whitehead commands every scene and shows further strings to his acting bow after showing his more muted skills in Christopher Nolan’s World War II opus.

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The Children Act is at its best when Emma Thompson and Stanley Tucci are on screen, the two having much chemistry as an on-screen couple, but Thompson flourishes in a very hard role to pull off. She’s obviously got the credentials for this kind of film, and has proven her worth countless times in the past, but this is a film which asks for further skills, including playing the piano – or at least convincing us she’s playing he piano – and singing in two very different scenes during the course of the film. I can’t actually remember the last time she was this good in a drama, easily igniting the right emotions in the viewer as the film plays out, particularly during the climactic few scenes, which readers of the book will be looking out for her to get absolutely right. Spoiler: She does.

It would be very easy for a film of this nature to fall into the bracket of feature-length TV drama given the type of story it is trying to tell. In an age when the likes of the BBC and ITV are churning out high-quality dramas of his nature on a regular basis, The Children Act does warrant its existence on a bugger screen to a paying audience, purely on the quality of its acting on display alone.

While the film didn’t manage to pull at the heart-strings as much as I imagined it would, there’s so much to get from the narrative and the many talking points it raises.

The Children Act review by Paul Heath, September 2017.

The Children Act was reviewed at the Toronto International Film Festival, and will be released in UK cinemas on a date to be determined.

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The Children Act review