The Children Act




Ian McEwan adapts one of his novels but the only real satisfaction lies in the acting.

Children Act, The

Welfare state: Fionn Whitehead


Following on from On Chesil Beach Ian McEwan now adapts another of his novels and this one, The Children Act, puts the admirable Emma Thompson screen centre. She plays a judge, Fiona Maye, whose cases include one in which she has to decide whether or not to authorise a hospital to give a blood transfusion to a 17-year-old, Adam Henry (Fionn Whitehead), who, like his parents, is opposed to it because all three are staunch Jehovah’s Witnesses who accept their church’s teaching on this subject.


The angle of approach may be different but this part of The Children Act - very much its best part - echoes that recent British success Apostasy. But, before that aspect takes over, we are given scenes showing how Fiona’s absorption in her work has caused her to neglect her husband, Jack (Stanley Tucci). This has involved months without sexual contact and early on we find Jack confronting his wife and announcing his plans to compensate by having an affair. Tucci is a good actor but his role is underwritten and, just as McEwan’s screenplay for On Chesil Beach failed to sound convincing, the domestic scenes here similarly ring false.


But worse is to come since the court decision regarding Adam is made about halfway through the film leaving The Children Act to drift through a second half vague in its focus and increasingly unconvincing when it comes to the behaviour of at least one of the central characters. Given the requirement that critics should not give away plot developments, I cannot comment in any detail on the events depicted but can only say that, despite the valiant efforts of Thompson and Whitehead, I did not believe in what was shown to be happening. Involving as it does a midlife crisis and the effect on Fiona of being childless, the tale throws many balls in the air without ever defining what is truly central - which is to say that I was left uncertain what McEwan wanted to say here. As in On Chesil Beach, classical music is poured over the piece rather distractingly (in this instance it is Bach, this being in addition to a key scene featuring the Britten arrangement of the folk song 'Down by the Salley Gardens'). Given the link this supplies with the previous film, one wonders if this use of background music is down to McEwan rather than to the director, Richard Eyre. The latter enables the cast to do some good work but to my mind is hobbled by McEwan since outside the court drama it is not just the dialogue that sometimes falls short but the credibility of the story itself which in any case needed a clearer sense of where its heart lay. Even so, there are considerable compensations for fans of Thompson and Whitehead.




Cast: Emma Thompson, Stanley Tucci, Fionn Whitehead, Ben Chaplin, Jason Watkins, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Anthony Calf, Rosie Cavallero, Eileen Walsh, Nicholas Jones, Rupert Vansittart, Reena Lalbihari.


Dir Richard Eyre, Pro Duncan Kenworthy, Screenplay Ian McEwan, based on his novel, Ph Andrew Dunn, Pro Des Peter Francis, Ed Dan Farrell, Music Stephen Warbeck, Costumes Fotini Dimou.

FilmNation Entertainment/BBC Films/Duncan Kenworthy-Entertainment One.
105 mins. USA/UK. 2017. Rel: 24 August 2018. Cert. 12A.