Emma Thompson delivers a heartfelt turn as a high court judge presiding over a difficult case in the second Ian McEwan adaptation of 2018.
Author Ian McEwan is a master when it comes to exploring the complexities of sex – its pressures, pains and consequences. He has recently adapted two of his novels into screenplays; On Chesil Beach, released earlier this year, and now The Children Act. In both, McEwan uses sex – specifically sexual dismissal – as a force for change.
In the former, directed by Dominic Cooke, Saoirse Ronan’s privileged, intelligent Florence rejects marital sex as a means of claiming her sexual identity. In The Children Act, sex has been lacking in the lengthy marriage between High Court judge Fiona (Emma Thompson) and Jack (Stanley Tucci) for 11 months. To Fiona, a respected member of her field, this concern has either been ignored or unnoticed. Jack, meanwhile, deems this situation reasonable grounds for starting an affair with another woman. It’s a suggestion he puts to his wife as a last resort, forcing her to see the failings in their relationship for the first time.
Jack leaves to pursue a striking blonde – meanwhile, Fiona picks up a high profile case involving Adam (Fionn Whitehead), a 17-year-old Jehovah’s Witness whose parents are denying him a life-saving blood transfusion. McEwan works hard to ensure that his characters are likeable and layered. There’s a level of self-righteousness to all parties redolent of motor-mouthed film and TV scribe, Aaron Sorkin; the husband is lonely, the wife, though emanating silky professionalism, is quietly vulnerable.
As her marriage tapers off into the unknown, Fiona ditches her conventional practice and goes to see Adam in hospital, a visit which compels her to consider her decision beyond the courtroom. As she reaches for the guitar at the end of Adam’s bed and the pair sing a duet, you find yourself grateful for the casting of Thompson and Whitehead, who manage to keep us invested in such potentially cringe-worthy moments.
Where The Children Act falls short is in the casting of Tucci as the largely absent husband. Such is his endearing screen presence that it’s hard not to crave a meatier part for him to rival Thompson. Instead, he plays second fiddle, and to unrewarding effect. For Thompson, however, this is a fine role. The ambiguity teased out by Fiona’s relationship with a much younger man leaves her room to tantalise, though purely for the viewer’s pleasure as the character is painfully consumed by her actions. Whether it’s a maternal bond that ties her to Adam, or that he views her as his entire world, Fiona is nevertheless torn between loneliness and decency, with Thompson effortlessly pulling the strings.
Director Richard Eyre, who addressed similar, albeit more sinister, themes in his 2006 film Notes on a Scandal, ushers us into Fiona’s world of privilege before he rocks it – only slightly at first, then more sharply as this strange relationship deepens. Although Adam may not be the most authentic characterisation of a teenager (McEwan’s biggest flaw seems to be in his skewed, older person’s perception of youth), Whitehead performs with an erratic energy that manifests itself as a surprising sense of unease. Expect a shot of suspense, then, in a seemingly by-the-book romantic drama, with an electric lead performance from Thompson.
Published 20 Aug 2018
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