'The Children Act'
If there were an award issued by the BFI for “Stuffiest and Britishest Film of the Year,” then ‘The Children Act’ would be a frontrunner destined to win by a landslide. The movie is about closed-off emotions in a distressingly English way that’ll either prove frustrating or enlightening depending on how closed-off and repressed the viewers might be (or at least their tolerance for such things).
Based on the novel by Ian McEwan, Emma Thompson stars as Fiona Maye, a British High Court judge so dedicated to her job and responsibilities that she’s cut off virtually every other aspect of her life. Her husband, Jack (Stanley Tucci), is tired of a marriage that has devolved to a passionless routine and announces that he’s going to have an affair. Fiona is furious, but can’t seem to find the energy or passion to stop him or respond with anything more than stern disapproval. At the same time, she’s presiding over the case of a brilliant 17-year-old boy (Fionn Whitehead) whose Jehovah’s Witness parents refuse to allow him a blood transfusion that will save his life due to their religious beliefs. Fiona decides to see the boy to make the call, and though he passionately refuses treatment, she’s taken by his energy and vitality. Her decision proves to alter everyone’s lives in unexpected ways.
‘The Children Act’ is very much a grown-up movie with adult ideas handled with the sort of chilly authoritative moral tone that demands to be taken seriously. Richard Eyre (‘Iris’, ‘Notes on a Scandal’) directs with stern intensity, rarely letting emotions or drama rise above a simmer. The movie is very tense with characters either unable to acknowledge their feelings or so full of emotions that they seem to explode with even the slightest push. Metaphor, symbol and high culture references pile up as if they need to be cited in a bibliography and studied intently. There’s a lot going on and unfortunately almost all of it is treated with a mixture of nauseating self-importance and relentless dullness. Everyone involved took the material so seriously that they sucked out any potential for fun or drama.
Thankfully, at the center is a remarkable performance from Emma Thompson. Though she’s certainly a charismatic and witty personality in real life, the actress has a knack for portraying stuffy, insecure and intelligent women far too refined and British to ever display emotion. She does a wonderful job trotting out that old trick here and single-handedly hoists the entire film on her shoulders. Unfortunately, the movie mostly isn’t worth her time or efforts. It’s just too dull and pretentious for Thompson’s stellar work to overcome everything around her. That probably means she’ll end up with a handful of nominations by the year’s end anyway. Bad movies don’t discredit good performances with the right awards circuit push.