Film Review: The Children Act features trio of high-calibre performances

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For the second time this year, author Ian McEwan (On Chesil Beach) adapts one of his own novels for the screen, writes Natalie Stendall.

Directed by Richard Eyre (Iris, Notes On A Scandal), The Children Act is a well-made but routinely paced drama.

Judge Fiona Maye (Emma Thompson) becomes involved in the case of a 17-year-old boy refusing a blood transfusion on religious grounds. But The Children Act doesn’t follow in the footsteps of Daniel Kokotajlo’s excellent Jehovahs Witness drama, Apostasy, released just five weeks earlier. Instead, The Children Act explores the emotional consequences of Fiona’s legal decision.

Fiona admits that the law can seem cold and impersonal, but its impact on cancer patient Adam Henry (Fionn Whitehead) is compelling and unexpected. Initially disconnected, Whitehead’s performance quickly fleshes out. Adam is outspoken, isolated and impulsive, his motives sometimes baffling, sometimes adolescent. He remains close to the periphery of the film, an intriguing and uncertain presence.

The rich texture of McEwan’s novel makes for an intricate and nuanced film that gives the audience credit: its title’s double meaning fuses its legal strand with the imminent breakdown of Fiona’s marriage.

Cinema’s presentation of its characters from outside is a frequent challenge for adaptation, but McEwan cleverly turns Fiona’s unknowability into the source of the film’s suspense.

Thompson is wonderfully ambiguous - privately tormented, publicly self-possessed and collected - and her cooly detached relationship with husband Jack (Stanley Tucci) is a wellspring of curiosity.

The film’s melodramatic finale is recovered by the calibre of these performances but one resolution is too sketchy to convince. Steadily paced, The Children Act provides few emotional highs or lows and Eyre occasionally deploys weighted images that fracture the film’s subtlety.

But it’s a rare misstep. Following hard on the heels of On Chesil Beach and A Child In Time, this latest adaptation risks McEwan fatigue but the proficiency with which The Children Act is written, directed and performed merits an enthusiastic audience.