Judges, outside of recent current events, are rarely the heroes of our stories. They more often act as the literal or figurative hands of fate, something for louder and far more cinematic lawyers to rail at or against. But there’s plenty of moral agony to be tapped from the plight of a judge who finds herself essentially wielding the power of God. The questions raised by The Children Act, adapted by Ian McEwan from his own 2014 novel, are good ones, though hard ones to dramatize in a way that doesn’t come off as too didactic. In the hands of Iris and Notes on a Scandal director Richard Eyre, McEwan’s story is stagy and austere, taking place in gleaming flats and spotless courtrooms, like a Nancy Meyers movie with more court wigs. It’s a wan, sapped atmosphere, making the life, faith, and literal blood of a 17-year-old boy all the more stark a line to run through it.
Emma Thompson plays Fiona Maye, a high court judge in London. Most of the cases she takes on involve the life and death of children. At the film’s opening, she’s working on one involving the separation of two conjoined twins, a procedure that will inevitably kill one of them, but the failure to do so will kill both of them. Fiona toils away as a kind of mundane Solomon, passing the judgment over the most emotional and impactful questions of people’s lives. Meanwhile, at home, her marriage with her academic husband, Jack (Stanley Tucci), is falling apart, largely, it seems, due to her workload. Jack asks to have an affair in the most gentlemanly manner possible (it’s hard to imagine any actor other than Tucci pulling that off believably); Fiona is horrified and throws him out of the house.
While he’s out, she picks up a particularly vexing case: a 17-year-old Jehovah’s Witness with leukemia, months away from his 18th birthday, wants to refuse a blood transfusion that could potentially save his life. His faith forbids the tampering of his blood, and he says he’d rather die than disobey God. Not being of legal age, the law forbids him from making such a decision, but Fiona breaks with protocol and goes to visit him in the hospital, to meet the boy whose parents swear he is basically an adult and capable of making the decision for himself. They bond briefly but meaningfully over Yates, then Fiona returns to the court and rules that the transfusion be made.
The specifics of McEwan’s story can feel so overwhelming that one occasionally pauses to ask what exactly one is watching — such an elaborately fabricated moral quandary risks being so unlikely as to be dismissable as drama. But Thompson’s pursed-lip performance is compelling under its orderly surface, and as Adam’s continued life begins to will itself onto hers outside the courtroom, you can see the turmoil of a thousand paths not taken roiling under her perfectly tailored business-dress looks. Late in the film, she takes a business trip to Newcastle, and momentarily reminisces on the childhood summers she spent in the North, the only time, she says, she was “wild and free.” It’s virtually the only hint we get at her nonprofessional life — Fiona is not the sort to do anything rash and cinematic, and we don’t need her to see the toil of a long life dedicated to a tough and often draining career.
And The Children Act is about the kind of secular god the letter of the law becomes — both in what it demands of Fiona’s personal life and how it changes the course of Adam’s. Early in the film, Jack is seen giving a lecture about the Greek philosopher Lucretius, and the pre-Christian era in which he worked, when “what was briefly possible was the fixity of a pensive gaze.” No one gives better pensive gaze here than Thompson; the drama lies in the fallibility of even the most competent and well-intentioned among us. The religious metaphors are laid on a little thick by the end, but McEwan and Eyre aren’t out to make a definitive point about Fiona’s judgement, more to just marinate in the complicated, sometimes absurd, and very necessary moral world we’ve created for ourselves in modern society.