Earlier this year saw the release of On Chesil Beach, an adaptation of an Ian McEwan novel centered around a wealthy musician who can’t bring herself to have sex with her husband. Now we get The Children Act, an adaptation of an Ian McEwan novel centred around a wealthy musician who can’t bring herself to have sex with her husband. Both are scripted by the novelist himself, and both suggest McEwan should stick to the literary world.
Have you ever watched a James Bond movie and come away wishing the film had followed the mission 007 wraps up in the pre-credits sequence rather than the one it subsequently devoted two hours to? I came away from The Children Act with the same feeling. When we first meet its protagonist, frosty High Court judge Fiona Maye (Emma Thompson), she’s delivering her verdict on a long-running case involving the separation of conjoined twins. This seems a far more fertile plotline than the one that comes to form the main narrative of McEwan and director Richard Eyre’s film, especially given its proximity to recent high profile real life UK High Court cases.
Instead, both the movie and Fiona move on to the case of Adam (Fionn Whitehead), a 17-year-old Jehovah’s Witness whose parents are denying him a life-saving blood transfusion on religious grounds. Fiona must decide if the doctors can go ahead and administer treatment against the wishes of the boy and his parents. Of course, we know in Fiona’s mind this is a cut and dry case, but for added drama the film has her pay a bedside visit to Adam, whose knowledge of Yeats and guitar-picking skills convince her that the precocious lad has a lot to live for. We’re forced then to wonder if Adam was a dullard who didn’t share Fiona’s artistic interests (she’s something of a piano virtuoso in her downtime), would she have been happy to let him shuffle off this mortal coil?
Of course, Fiona orders the doctors to treat the teenager and moves on to her next case. Weeks later however, she is surprised to receive a text message from Adam. After asking how he got her number, the boy simply replies “It wasn’t hard,” as though any teenager can get their hands on the private cellphone number of a High Court judge! When Fiona refuses to engage Adam in a texting session, he turns up in person, and becomes something of a stalker. But with her marriage to college lecturer Jack (Stanley Tucci, who has become so jacked I mistook him for Vin Diesel when he was introduced with a shot of the back of his bald head) rapidly disintegrating, Fiona appears to welcome Adam’s increasingly creepy attention.
The movie doesn’t seem to find Adam as creepy as the audience will. We’re asked to view him with sympathy, but Whitehead plays him with a mad-eyed intensity that suggests he’s on the verge of committing an act of violence if he doesn’t get his way. Fiona is so poorly sketched that we can’t get a grasp of what she’s really feeling about this odd scenario, and Thompson looks rudderless in the role.
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The most egregious problem with The Children Act is that it’s clearly the product of a middle class liberal atheist who has a clear position on the film’s central issue and isn’t willing to indulge the other side. When Fiona first meets Adam, she asks him why he is willing to risk his life for his beliefs. The wishy washy explanation he gives her is simply confirmation bias on behalf of the target audience of liberal atheists who view Jehovah’s Witnesses as loons. Ask an actual Jehovah’s Witness why they would refuse someone else’s blood and they’ll tell you that for them it would constitute an almost rape-like violation, one they would struggle to live with afterwards. Much as religious people might rankle liberals, they’re not going anywhere anytime soon, and portraying them as ignorant rubes doesn’t help anyone in this increasingly divided era.
Films like The Children Act are as single-minded in their liberal atheist viewpoint as those conservative Christian movies that usually star washed up former TV stars like Kevin Sorbo or Melissa Joan Hart. For a more nuanced take on the subject of Jehovah’s Witnesses and their controversial beliefs regarding blood transfusions, I recommend checking out the recently released British drama Apostasy instead.
The Children Act
2 stars out of 5
Directed by: Richard Eyre. Starring: Emma Thompson, Fionn Whitehead, Stanley Tucci