M, 105 mins
Palace Electric New Acton
Review by © Jane Freebury
A good story about a moral dilemma is hard to beat. The English novelist Ian McEwan has a steady supply of them with characters caught between a rock and a hard place, faced with moral choices at once as intractable as they are desirable.
If humour is wanting – his novel Solar was perhaps an exception – you could not complain about McEwan’s lack of complexity as he challenges his characters with far more than they bargained for. Many literary awards testify to the compelling achievements of this Booker Prize winning author and influential thinker.
He’s a novelist but has on occasion also written just for the screen. The Ploughman’s Lunch in 1983 was based on his screenplay but now he tends to write screenplays based on his own books like Atonement and On Chesil Beach.
These recent films have taught us what we can expect of McEwan – a forensic dissection of human relationships. The film of his book The Children Act is no exception.
Directed with nuance and grace by Richard Eyre, The Children Act repays the viewer with its complexity and a stupendous performance by Emma Thompson, as high court justice Fiona Maye. And Stanley Tucci in excellent form too as her husband Jack, a classics professor.
A case comes before her involving a young man not quite 18 whose Jehovah Witness family is refusing to allow him a blood transfusion because it’s contrary to their beliefs.The hospital where the boy is languishing with leukemia is suing the parents for the right to pursue treatment – transfusion followed by drug therapy – and an 11th hour decision is required.
Over and above his parents’ wishes, the boy’s life is already protected by the Children Act, but Maye makes an impromptu visit to the boy in hospital. What does he want?
It turns out Adam (Fionn Whitehead), haggard and handsome, has the sensibilities of a romantic poet. He responds fulsomely to Fiona when she reveals her own interest in poetry and that she is a musician too. It seems as though he represents the passion that is missing from the well-ordered, work-oriented life that she leads as she shuttles between a Gray’s Inn apartment, her rooms and the court. Nor do she and Jack have children.
What’s more, Jack has just left, declaring he’s going to have an affair. It looks like Fiona has taken her demonstrative, sensitive husband for granted, but she changes the locks all the same.
As milady the judge becomes increasingly isolated, Adam becomes more and more obsessive, not entirely unlike the Rhys Ifans’ stalker in Enduring Love, also based on a McEwan book.
That’s one way of looking at it. I found myself wondering where social services were when we needed them. But that, of course, would have been prosaic and not have allowed the dramatic potential of this unusual situation to evolve.
Trust McEwan to throw this curved ball at us.
Jane’s reviews are also published at the Canberra Critics Circle and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7 (Arts Cafe)