Children Act, The


And the balancing act

Main Cast: Emma Thompson, Stanley Tucci

Director: Richard Eyre

We are living in horrible times. Times during which corruption and cruelty are rewarded with power, and compassion is viewed as weakness. In times like these, the people who dedicate their lives to the care of others – healthcare providers, teachers, social workers, and many more – are derided and villainized by the very same people who are amassing power and wealth by demonizing the most marginalized among us.  Yet people still pursue these careers, because they matter. And sometimes a movie comes along that puts the spotlight on a profession that takes a heavy personal toll on those who choose to walk on the right side of history. The Children Act is one of those movies.

Based on the book of the same name by author Ian McEwan, The Children Act is the story of a family court judge in England. Fiona Maye (Emma Thompson) seems to be on call at all times, deciding delicate cases ranging from child neglect to whether or not conjoined twins should be separated. At the center of the film is the case of a young man, Adam (Fionn Whitehead), nearly 18, whose parents are refusing a blood transfusion that would likely save his life based on religious objections.

In addition to her brutally demanding job, Fiona is struggling in her marriage to Jack (Stanley Tucci) who feels a distant second to her career. He isn’t wrong. Fiona doesn’t discuss her work much, if at all, with Jack, keeping to her heavy schedule of heart wrenching cases in a very business-like manner. But Adam gets under her skin, cracking through her carefully constructed shell and ushering unwanted emotion into this very stoic judge’s life.

My first thoughts after finishing The Children Act were that Emma Thompson and Stanley Tucci are both absolutely brilliant actors. These performances are magnificent. Thompson broke my heart with her stubbornly built, extremely fragile walls compartmentalizing every part of her life and leaving no space for close relationships with anyone. When a real feeling does manage to break through, she has forgotten how to manage it. Tucci, whose character at first glance is a big jerk, turns Jack into a persistent little hammer; crack, cracking away at Fiona’s shell to try and find the woman he married. The two of them together create an uncomfortable tug-of-war for Fiona between emotional vulnerability and professional survival.  For how could she make such earth shattering decisions about the lives of other people if she feels it all? Yet how can she live a life outside the courtroom (or for that matter be a truly good judge) if she never allows herself to feel anything? That struggle is the heart of the film.

Outside the scenes with Fiona and/or Jack, the movie suffers a little in terms of pacing and structure. Mostly this is a function of the imbalance between the crackling intensity of the main characters and the solid but not remarkable script and supporting performances. I really do not mean that to be a negative critique of those aspects of the film, it’s just very difficult for them to compete with the strength of the lead roles and performances. Fionn Whitehead is very good as Adam, making him an engaging teenager who desperately needs something from Fiona that his parents can’t give, yet with no real idea what that might be.  Also quite good is Jason Watkins as Nigel, Fiona’s assistant who has a far better understanding of the weight of her professional obligations than anyone else in her life.

The Children Act is not a fast paced thriller. It’s a careful contemplation of a life that’s out of balance and a woman whose dedication to the well-being of others has eroded her ability to be vulnerable to the people who love her. It’s a struggle with which a lot of people will relate as they navigate their own demanding but underappreciated professions. It is well worth a watch – I got it as a DVD rental from Netflix. It’s also available to stream on Amazon Prime Video fee with subscription or for rent or purchase.

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