Complex moral issues go to court in The Children Act

A- Courtroom drama
Written by Ian McEwan, adapted from his novel
Directed by Richard Eyre

Note: I saw this film at this year’s SFFILM Festival, and wrote this review soon afterwards. Since then, I’ve been holding this review, waiting for the Bay Area theatrical run. That run has not yet happened, but the film is available on all of the major pay-per-view services, so I’m publishing this review now.

How do you make life and death decisions about children, balancing the wishes of parents, the law, and your own sense of right and wrong? The choices aren’t easy in The Children Act, a British film from 2017 finally coming to American theaters.

Emma Thompson stars as a judge who, from what we see in the movie, specializes in parent/child legal issues. When we first meet her, she’s trying to decide how to handle a case involving newborn Siamese twins so physically embedded into each other that the only options are to kill one so that the other can live, or let them both die. The parents prefer the second choice. But that’s not what this film is about.

The main plot concerns a 17-year-old Jehovah Witness (Fionn Whitehead) dying of Leukemia. A blood transfusion may save his life, but it’s against his religion. He’s ready to die for his faith, and his parents feel the same way (parents seem to make surprisingly bad decisions in this court). But because he’s under 18, his choice carries no weight. But since he’s still legally a child, the court can overrule the parents’ wishes, take control, and insist on the transfusion.

The film’s title comes from a 1989 British law which allows the government to contradict parental decisions to protect the child.

But not all the judge’s problems happen in the courtroom. Her husband (Stanley Tucci) feels neglected. They no longer have a sex life, or any other sort of life together. He loves her and wants to stay with her, but he also wants something else on the side. She responds by threatening him with divorce. In their own way, both are right.

The Children Act is very much an actors’ movie, in that very special British way. It provides Thompson with one of her best performances in years, and she proves that she still has it. Tucci, of course, is perfect as her frustrated but still loving husband.

But the most impressive performance in the film comes from Whitehead, who you just might recognize as the star of Dunkirk‘s land-based sequences. In The Children Act, he plays a very sick adolescent who occasionally rallies to the point where he seems healthy. He also swings from religious fanaticism to the excitement of life’s possibilities for a good-looking young man. It’s a superb performance for someone that young.

The procedures and traditions of the British legal system can be confusing for a Yank like me. Thompson’s judge doesn’t usually wear a silly white wig in court; but sometimes she does. In one scene, her clerk (pronounced clark) must bring an important message to her at a big party. It’s clear to all involved that his presence at the event breaks proper protocol.

In the setting and acting, The Children Act is entirely British. But in the moral issues that it brings up, it’s universal.

You can stream The Children Act at Amazon, YouTube, Google Play, and VUDU.