Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got no problem with stolid courtroom procedurals — but I do have a major problem with The Children Act, a turgid melodrama masquerading as a weighty social think piece. Director Richard Eyre has apparently decided to forgo character development and narrative momentum in favor of odd, sexless romantic entanglements and inept armchair Freudianism — to what end, I have no idea. Perhaps some of this is rooted in screenwriter Ian McEwan’s adaptation of his own novel, but assuming the book is similarly convoluted and pointless, why bother making a movie out of it?
The premise looks interesting enough on the surface. No-nonsense judge Fionna Maye (Emma Thompson) is confronted with a heavy moral dilemma when called to adjudicate the case of a 17-year-old Jehovah’s Witness with leukemia who is refusing a lifesaving blood transfusion at the behest of his parents and preachers. Will she allow the boy to die for his convictions or force him to live by virtue of legal precedent? Throw in a rapidly disintegrating marriage, and it sounds like compelling stuff, at least until you realize that the plot is going to wind up deep in soap opera territory.
Maye, reeling from her husband Jack’s (Stanley Tucci) announcement that he intends to have an affair, makes the unconventional decision to visit the subject of her case, Adam (Fionn Whitehead), at his bedside before rendering her decision, and the two have a distinctly strange bonding moment. This sets in motion a bizarre emotional entanglement between Maye and Adam, which raises two functional problems right off the bat: It doesn’t make any kind of sense, and worse, it doesn’t make any kind of point.
But the larger problem here is one of characterization, as Eyre and McEwan fail to include any likable characters in their film. As the protagonist, Maye is admirable in her competence but absolutely reprehensible in her dismissiveness to those around her. She ignores her husband and denies him even the scantest signs of affection but becomes peevishly petulant when he seeks comfort in another woman’s bed. She treats her long-suffering clerk like little more than a foot servant, literally stepping over him at one point. Her husband is similarly unsympathetic, and Adam’s parents (Ben Chaplin, Eileen Walsh) are presented as borderline-offensive stereotypes of misguided religious zealots. There’s literally nobody to root for — and therefore, nobody to really care about.
What this all amounts to is a film with little to recommend it beyond solid performances from Thompson and Chaplin (Tucci hams it up way too much, and the child can’t act) and an intriguing premise that goes absolutely nowhere. Is this movie in support of religious freedom? Rule of law? Taking responsibility for the lives we directly affect? Your guess is as good as mine. What takes no real guessing is that Eyre and McEwan mistakenly believe they’ve got something very important on their hands here, and it’s that very sense of self-importance that precludes The Children Actfrom growing into anything meaningful.