“The Children Act,” the latest film adaptation of an Ian McEwan novel, has a strong cast and a compelling plot but fails to live up to the allure of its literary counterpart. The film, which is directed by Richard Eyre and distributed by FilmNation Entertainment, BBC Films, A24 and DirecTV Cinema, is based in London and follows Fiona Maye, played by Emma Thompson, an esteemed judge frequently tasked with cases that fall into legal and moral gray areas. In the film, a 17-year-old boy is dying of leukemia and desperately needs a blood transfusion, but his parents are Jehovah’s Witnesses and refuse to give consent. Fiona must determine whether the hospital has the legal right to override the family’s wishes and infuse Adam, played by Fionn Whitehead, who is mere months shy of the legal age of consent and insists that he does not want the transfusion.
The core issues being explored in this film are contemporary and compelling — the protagonist is a powerful, intelligent woman, and the court cases she rules on are thought-provoking and reflective of current bioethical dilemmas. Without the subtle details and unspoken thoughts presented in McEwan’s novel, however, several aspects of the plot seem either predictable or unrealistic.
The most compelling subplot in the novel is Fiona’s rocky marriage and her husband’s announcement that he would like to have an affair. However, the film adaptation of this problem is louder and less nuanced. Fiona’s busyness and commitment to her work is an overused trope, and mentions of her childlessness seem superfluous and overwrought, due in part to undue weight placed on certain scenes in the film as opposed to in the novel.
Despite these downfalls, the film has some areas of notable success, the first being Thompson’s performance. Her portrayal of Fiona is impeccable and succeeds in holding the story together and keeping your eyes glued to the screen. She gives a sharp, smart performance and perfectly emulates the interplay of Fiona’s quick-witted and successful legal mind and her more vulnerable, quiet moments. These more tender scenes result from strong public backlash against her rulings or from arguments with her husband, played by Stanley Tucci. One of the best short scenes in the film shows Fiona unflinchingly reacting to a revolving door of court cases, after which she retreats to her office and checks her phone to take stock of her crumbling relationship with her husband. In moments at home, we see Thompson’s character showing a vulnerability and introspection that isn’t visible when Fiona’s exercising her critical mind on the bench.
“The Children Act” also impressively captures the essence of a controversial court case, particularly when, as Fiona says, “This court is a court of law, not of morals.” In one of the most passionate and informative scenes of the film, Adam’s father, played by Ben Chaplin, argues with lawyers about the interaction between his beliefs and his love for his son. In doing so he allows viewers —many of whom may not understand the desire to withhold medical care — to better grasp his dilemma. When Fiona meets Adam, he echoes similar sentiments: “We just want to live our lives in the truth as we see it, as we know it.”
Part of the power of “The Children Act” comes from the beautiful soundtrack, composed by Stephen Warbeck. Brilliantly placed classical music underlies most of the scenes, successfully amplifying emotional undertones and connecting the story arc. Combined with the sharp visuals of gray and bright London, the soundtrack makes each scene impeccably realized and keeps viewers in tune with the emotional tone of the film.
Ultimately, “The Children Act,” released Sept. 14, is a worthwhile film. It has a strong plot and features admirable performances. Although the film certainly could have improved upon a few areas of its production, the small issues are only apparent when directly compared to the book’s success. If you are looking to spend 105 minutes following a fascinating court case and admiring Thompson’s talent, see this film. However, if you want the best of this story, the film’s eponymous novel is a better way to go.