Film Review: The Children Act (UK, 2017) is a middling drama enlivened by a powerhouse performance from Emma Thompson

This may be a bold statement to make but it must be said: every film out there would kill to have the presence of Emma Thompson. Whether it is for her acting capabilities like she can elevate even the most fluffiest of films like the rom-com Love Actually with her fantastic acting chops; or it is for her stellar screenwriting thanks to her contributions to Ang Lee‘s Sense & Sensibility, the Nanny McPhee films and even elevating the potentially dreadful Bridget Jones’ Baby into an amusing and surprisingly enjoyable sequel.

And now, we have her to grace us with her presence in the leading role of the drama, The Children Act. Packed with prescient themes, a talented cast, source material from an acclaimed author and an above-average director, will the film stand on its own two feet as well as live up to the presence of Emma Thompson?

Emma Thompson stars as Fiona Maye, a High Court judge whose content life is falling apart due to a marital crisis, initiated by her husband Jack (Stanley Tucci). To top that all off, she has a life-changing decision to make, involving a teenage boy who desperately needs a life-saving blood transfusion.

The decision has come into question due to the boy’s parents, who refuse the transfusion due to deeply-seeded religious reasons. Will Emma Fiona make the right decision and if she does, will it have deep consequences for both her and boy?

The story implies that The Children Act is a complex film that has a lot on its agenda, but it is unfortunate to report that it underwhelms due to the fact that, thanks to the many disparate plot threads and a lack of focus, director Richard Eyre and screenwriter Ian McEwan cannot keep the plates spinning.

At first it becomes a marital crisis story and then it becomes a courtroom drama, which then leads up to being an unorthodox relationship story. Considering the brisk running time of 106 minutes, it’s a shame that the stories don’t really make a true impact as much as the filmmakers had intended.

It also doesn’t help that the characters are not as developed, either. So when the story starts to gain momentum and introduce complications, characters make decisions that are quite puzzling, especially in comparison with what the filmmakers had established. The decision that Maye makes in order to gather a proper verdict for the case comes across as forced, hackneyed and would never work in a court of law due to lack of impartiality.

Resorting to compensation, Eyre’s direction tends to overplay the drama at times, but unfortunately it just comes across as melodramatic and at some points, laughable. One moment (of many) in the final act involves a character breaking down, but not without the violin in the musical score playing on cue, which just overstates the obvious. Another moment involves the transfusion in question and yet in the shot, we see an air bubble in the tube where the blood is flowing in. In a real-life situation, that air bubble would have certainly killed him, ending the film right there.

That said, the three leads do make the most out of their roles and they truly give the film some much-needed punch. Fionn Whitehead, who last provided good work in the war film Dunkirk, gives a commendable performance as the boy in question. While his character can seem quite creepy at times, his portrayal of determination, blind faith and conflicting emotions is well-done and gives more life to the role than the script provides. Stanley Tucci brings sincerity to the part of Maye’s husband, Jack, making the character more empathetic than the source material may have suggested; and more than just a plot device to add tension to the story.

And of course, there’s the woman herself, Emma Thompson. The role of Fiona Maye is quite cliched. We’ve seen the role of a woman who struggles to reconcile her personal life and her career life together before. But Thompson elevates the role (as well as the film) with her nuanced and internalized performance, even with Eyre’s blatant direction and McEwan’s overstretched script.

Overall, The Children Act succumbs to melodrama and unfocused storytelling, mainly due to the many story threads that never truely develop. Fortunately, the film is enlivened by a powerhouse performance by Emma Thompson and Fionn Whitehead shows acting chops that hint greater things in the future. Cautiously recommended.

TWO AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

The Children Act is in cinemas today.