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Movie Review: A Stellar Cast and Complex Questions Drive "The Children Act"

Starring Emma Thompson, Stanley Tucci, Fionn Whitehead, 
Ben Chaplin,  Eileen Walsh, Anthony Calf, Jason Watkins
Screenplay by Ian McEwan
Based on his novel
Directed by Richard Eyre

 Out of Four

Emma Thompson has been one of my very favorite actresses for 25 years now, having won my fandom with her performance in Much Ado About Nothing. Any time the multiple Oscar winner plays the lead in a film, it's an instant must see for me.

In The Children Act,  Fiona Maye (Thompson) is a judge in the High Court  of Justice of England and Wales. The emotionally distant, workaholic judge who has no time for her personal life is smacked in the face with the reality of the situation when, after once again rejecting the idea of weekend plans because she has two much on the docket, Fiona's husband, Jack (Stanley Tucci) announces wants to have an affair with a colleague. He feels himself dying inside, as Fiona constantly works and is never truly with him, even on the rare occasions that they are together. "we never even kiss anymore" he states simply. He says that he will have an affair, but will be totally open about it, insisting that he has never stopped, and will never stop, loving her, but that he needs to feel something again.

Fionn Whitehead as Adam.
Images Courtesy A24 and BBC Films

Meanwhile, a case is brought before her involving a 17-year-old boy, Adam Henry (Dunkirk's Fionn Whitehead), who is suffering from leukaemia. Adam's doctors want to perform a blood transfusion, as that will allow them to use more drugs to cure him. However, Adam and his parents are Jehovah's Witnesses, and believe that having a blood transfusion is against their religion. As both sides make compelling cases, and Adam is less than two months from being a legal adult, Fiona breaks with tradition and decides to go to the hospital to see Adam and speak to him in person. The two talk, with Fiona attempting to determine what it is that Adam really wants, and whether he has been persuaded by his parents.

This is a film about the toughest of tough questions, and how we choose to face them (or run away from them.). The Children Act plays out quite differently than you might expect from the trailers, and when it dares to leave the impossible questions is poses hanging instead of trying to give heavy handed answers, it's a deeply involving examination of how elusive right and wrong can be.  Director Richard Eyre is approaches the material with a soft stylistic touch, letting the human drama speak for itself and never distracting us with unnecessary razzle dazzle. 

Stanley Tucci and Emma Thompson as Jack and Fiona.
Images Courtesy A24 and BBC Films
Thompson is perfectly cast, emotionally withdrawn but far from uncaring. The chemistry between the the proper lady and the passionate, devout young man is wonderfully engaging. Whitehead, who has amazing chemistry with Thompson and makes us instantly love Adam, utterly steals the film, and he shows the potential to be a major, lasting presence, and Stanley Tucci is one of the few actors who play the character of Jack without bringing any sense of judgement to him, and making it surprisingly difficult for us to judge him (Tucci is the master of the understated performance, with the exception of his oddly Oscar nominated, career worst turn in The Lovely Bones).

Unfortunately, there's a nagging feeling that the story has aimed so high with the moral and ethical quandaries of presents that eventually the film itself starts to run away from them. The final section feels a bit like they had to find a way to wrap up the story and while some who watch it will disagree, it felt to me like they chose the easiest way out ( It may not be the easiest ending for the characters, but it's possibly the laziest one available to the filmmakers.). The precise reason the story is so compelling is because real life doesn't have a wrap up, and this film required a climax that felt far more open ended and vague.

Still, there's no question that writer Ian McEwan has come up with a powerful tale here, and there are plenty of elements that work to great effect. It's a film that has you hooked from the first frame to the last, and it is perhaps inevitable that it should bite off more than it can chew. But if had been allowed to chew it a bit more slowly instead of simply being told to spit it out,there was the potential for something unforgettable. As it stands, The Children Act will make you feel sad for a while, and then you'll probably forget all about it.

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