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Alan Charlton

A hard look at hard choices in Children Act

Voices Oct. 1, 2018

Emma Thompson and Ben Chaplin in The Children Act. The film’s central issue is  the conflict between emotion and intellectual argument in moral decision-making, writes Alan Charlton. (EOne photo)

There is a rather salutary, but ironic, message conveyed by a sign at the Fifth Avenue movie house: “Movies for Grown-Ups.” Clearly it is an attempt to explain that some movies are not simply escapist horror films or comic book inspired epics and that they are meant to appeal to people who actually want to think.

The irony lies in the fact that the same cinema, now that it has lost its independent status and been taken over by the almost monolithic Cineplex, devotes most of its screens to films which are clearly not aiming at the grown-ups referred to by the sign. However, the theatre is showing (as several others will in the weeks to come) a film which certainly fits into the “grown-up” category in that it has considerable artistic merit and, equally importantly, attempts to address some complex issues.

The Children Act, based upon Ian McEwan’s novel, starts out with Judge Fiona Maye (Emma Thompson), who has to pass judgment in two controversial cases. First, she must determine whether conjoined twins should be separated; if they are, one will surely die, but if they are not separated neither will live.

This kind of moral and ethical dilemma is raised again when Judge Maye has to determine whether or not to override the wishes of parents and their 17-year-old son, played by Ben Chaplin, by ordering a blood transfusion for him. Since the family are devout members of the Jehovah Witness faith, such a transfusion would be for them sinful.

Although bound by the Children Act of the title, which determines in Britain the role the state plays in the protection of children, in unusual fashion Judge Maye decides to visit the young boy to help her decide. This proves to be something of a mistake as the two quickly find an emotional connection. Thus, the central issue of the film is raised: a conflict between emotion and intellectual argument in arriving at ethical, moral, and religious decisions. Undoubtedly this has very real relevance to much that happens in society today.

All of this is well and good. Unfortunately, the waters become muddy when McEwan raises other issues, including the fact that Judge Maye’s husband Jack (Stanley Tucci) feels their marriage is no longer valid as she is constantly distracted by work. A further complication arises as a result of Maye’s connection with the young man. The net result of all of this is the film loses focus and, in fact, becomes rather tiresomely irrelevant as it pursues a complicated set of plot developments. This is a pity as the issues facing Maye as a judge who is also a human being are real and important.

This is not to say that the film will have no appeal (even to “grown-ups”). First and foremost, the issues are still there and will doubtless lead to lively discussion long after leaving the theatre. Moreover, the film is impeccably acted. Emma Thompson in particular turns in a beautifully nuanced performance of a woman of feeling attempting to carry out a formidable task while herself living in an emotional crisis. For this alone the film is well worth viewing. Like many other British films, particularly those produced by the BBC, it is completed with artistry and skill which lends it a tremendous immediacy and authenticity.

The Children Act is a welcome alternative to so much of the dross currently in release. Despite its flaws, it offers viewers a challenging, frequently emotional, drama – and one which appeals both artistically and intellectually. It’s well worth seeing.