The Children Act review – flaws in Ian McEwan’s novel are cruelly exposed | Film

The writing of Ian McEwan – he adapted this screenplay from his own novel – is sophisticated and rewarding. It is also, arguably, one of the main problems with a film that manages to be both wholly persuasive and utterly preposterous.

There is no questioning the angular complexity of the central character study, with all its unexpected harmonics and discords. Eminent high court judge Fiona Maye (superbly inhabited by Emma Thompson) is given to brusque certainties – her decisions in life are as final and binding as those she makes in court. There is a steely elegance to her; she’s an ermine robe with the claws still showing. Fiona is dedicated to and consumed by her job, at the expense of her marriage to academic Jack (Stanley Tucci). There’s a terrific scene early on when Jack is trying to tempt her away from work – a ruling on a pair of conjoined twins – with offers of dinner and theatre tickets. Fiona, oblivious, reads aloud: “Michael’s heart is normal and sustains them both.” She might as well be describing her marriage. Jack’s announcement that he is planning to have an affair coincides with one of the most difficult cases of her career.

Adam (Fionn Whitehead) is a 17-year-old boy who is refusing a life-saving blood transfusion on religious grounds. Fiona takes the unexpected decision to visit him in hospital; this brief, intense encounter sears itself into both their lives. She rules that he must receive the transfusion. The piano score tinkles, prim and plaintive.

But Adam feels that Fiona’s intervention at this moment links their fates. He starts sending her over-masticated poetry and leaving needy messages on her phone. He stalks her; he practically offers himself up for adoption. And this is where the story stumbles. These actions don’t feel like those of a teenage cancer survivor. They are a contrived plot device rather than the behaviour of a flesh-and-blood person. Adam’s instability serves to knock Fiona off kilter – and gives Thompson some of her meatiest scenes – but it does so at the expense of much of the picture’s sober credibility.

Watch the trailer for The Children Act.

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