A character study innocently disguised as a courtroom drama, The Children Act gives us a fresh take on the legal procedural by following the point of view from the judge’s side instead of the litigants, but once the plot leaves the court behind in the second half the movie loses its focus in Reel Movie Mondays’ first film of the Fall 2018 season.
Held together throughout by a stately, restrained performance by Emma Thompson as “My Lady” Fiona Maye, we witness her overworked family court judge tackle case after case with little regard for the effect it has on her own marriage. Beholden to the law as written, we see Fiona render verdicts putting the welfare of the child ahead of the wishes or desires of the parents, leading to the irony of a person with no children of their own, tasked with making an impartial judgement without ever having experienced parenthood themselves. Is she truly objective? Does this make her a worse judge or a better judge? How is the upheaval in her own home life affecting her judgement? Who has the right to decide what is ‘best’ for a child? These are all subtle questions that the audience has to consider once the movie moves forward with its main case of a 17 year old Jehovah’s Witness with leukemia wanting to refuse a blood transfusion. With the transfusion, the hospital can administer further drugs to save young Adam Henry’s (played by Fionn Whitehead) life but this is antithetical to their religious beliefs of blood being a gift from God that carries their soul within.
The court scenes are extremely well written and staged, with both sides of the argument getting shown equal time to make their case and have their pros and cons laid out so that it does truly feel like a dilemma without favour to one side or the other. The hospital’s case being that transfusions weren’t around when the bible was written, and the defendants being that improper treatment with transfusions can lead to other blood diseases, blindness or organ failure. An impassioned defense of his own religious beliefs by the father on the stand was very much the standout here, lending a credence to his view that could have easily come off as irrational or fabricated played differently. It would have been interesting to see more of that played out between parents and the son in the hospital, because one of the thrusts of the reasoning behind a court stepping into a family affair such as this is that the child has never known any other point of view. That they aren’t making this choice independently because they have been indoctrinated to accept that things are only how they are. If we had seen Adam in the hospital having doubts about his faith before the trial, or discussing with his parents the consequences of refusing treatment, we may have been able to feel and empathize a little more with how Adam acts in the second half of the film. Unfortunately, the first time we get to know Adam is when Judge Maye makes the uncommon choice of visiting Adam in the hospital personally.
The curious thing about this for the audience is that we don’t really know why Fiona wants to visit Adam. The scene itself is again well written and acted by both Thompson and Whitehead with Adam declaring “It’s my choice” and calling Fiona “My Lady” in such a way that you think there is no way she will rule against him, and finishing with a duet of “Down by the Salley Gardens” that makes you think there is no way she will not let him continue experiencing those ultimate joys of being alive.
It is after this point that the many plot threads and moral questions the movie introduces start to fall by the wayside and aren’t given enough time to breathe so that they don’t really come to a satisfying conclusion, sinking under the weight of its own heavy caseload. For example, I have yet to mention that Fiona is dealing with her husband having an affair that he openly announced he was going to do because of her total focus on work. We know they are childless but we never know whether that was by choice or circumstance. We never get to explore why she became a judge, if she truly believes the law is the law, whether she agrees with it or not, if it should be changed. Instead, we get all too brief interjections by the amazing Stanley Tucci (somewhat wasted here with barely nothing to do), saying “Do you remember how we used to be?” or an unspoken flashback about the day he bought her a piano for their flat. There were some missed opportunities here to flesh out these characters which would have given the plot and moral dilemmas a little more weight. I don’t mind a movie bringing up moral questions and leaving the answers ambiguous, but the amount and way The Children Act does this makes you wonder where it is trying to take you in its second half.
After Fiona grants the hospital permission for the transfusion and saves Adam’s life we leave the courtroom and turn more towards Fiona’s personal life with her husband, business duties and preparing for a Christmas concert with one of her colleagues. During all of this, Adam appears again and again, following Fiona, giving her poems that he has written, following her on a business trip to Newcastle, telling her that she was right to save him, asking to move in with her as a lodger so she can teach him more about life. It was during all of this that the movie lost me by taking too long to reveal what Fiona was truly feeling and what, if any, responsibility she now holds for Adam and his life going forward. She took away his choice because of an arbitrary, human-made determination of what age society considers a person responsible for their own choices.
There is a lot to admire and issues to discuss brought forth in The Children Act. Thompson embodies the stricture of a judge exactly as you would expect, with little emotional cracks here and there in the way she desperately checks her phone for a message from her husband or how she used to be “wild and free” during her youth on holidays in Newcastle. There is an inordinate amount of symbolism for the audience, such as how Fiona is just as much indoctrinated into the rule of law as someone in a religious order is to their customs and concepts of right and wrong. The right of an individual to choose their own path in life. However, it would have been better for the film to centre its focus and emphasize exactly what issues it wanted to present, instead of leaving it up to the audience to wonder and guess.
Reel Movie Monday’s next film is “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Far on Foot” starring Joaquin Phoenix and based on John Callahan’s memoir on October 15, 2018. Until then, save me the aisle seat!
– Jason Hlady