The Children Act: Life or Dignity In Powerful Courtroom Drama

A High Court Judge (Emma Thompson) must come to a difficult decision regarding the welfare of a child who is refusing a lifesaving blood transfusion on the basis of his faith. Making the unusual decision to actually meet the child at the hospital, where she forms a bond that further complicates her decision.

Such a narrative lends itself to cliché and reductionism. Evil, stern faced religious parents, an angelic child rescued from Dark Age practices by an enlightened humanist judge. Yet the film does not offer such pastiche nor any easy solutions to its dilemma. The boy is eloquent, separated from adulthood only by a few months, and seems to have made an informed decision to deny treatment. Ian McEwan’s screenplay is nuanced enough to offer both sides legitimacy and flaws.

This extends to portraying the parents in a positive light, their faith sincere and well intentioned. The opposing barristers are both alternately reductive and unreasonable in their arguments. The shortcomings of the Jehovah’s Witness religion are not shied away from, including its treatment of anyone who breaks its rules. The concept of parental coercion looms menacing over the entire discourse, and there’s an uneasy feeling throughout that we’re investigating the limitations of free will.

Emma Thompson is the heart and spine of the film. Everything depends upon her stern, stoic and yet deeply invested Judge Fiona Maye. She is a compelling lead and offers a deeply nuanced performance as a woman torn between what she feels is write and her increasingly complicated relationship with a young man who’s life hangs in the balance. Fionn Whitehead is superb as the charismatic yet damaged young man who desperately needs a higher power to worship.

The only weakness of the film is it’s most conventional element. Back home Judge Maye faces a bored husband who has decided to have an affair. Though Thompson’s anxiety is palpable, it’s a fairly clichéd scenario, and an all too frequent stumbling block for professional women in film.

Despite some conventional plot elements, The Children Act is a riveting court room drama that offers no easy solutions to provocative issues of faith and autonomy. It’s aided greatly by two powerful central performances.

Four Stars

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