As her marriage crumbles, a judge must decide a case involving a teenage boy who is refusing a blood transfusion on religious principle.

Director: Richard Eyre
Writers: Ian McEwan
Stars: Emma Thompson, Stanley Tucci, Fionn Whitehead

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It’s no secret that women in film have a much harder time than men finding rich, complex roles as they age. This was true throughout the history of Hollywood, and the situation is only mildly better today, which explains why award-winning actresses like Jessica Lange or Sally Field turn to television or theater to find stimulating opportunities. The situation may be a little different in England; the Brits revere their grande dames like Judi Dench and Maggie Smith. Emma Thompson of course is considerably younger than Dame Maggie and Dame Judi, but even she hasn’t had a rich array of starring roles in the last decade. (A couple that she did have, Last Chance Harvey with Dustin Hoffman and Saving Mr. Banks with Tom Hanks, underperformed at the box office, which probably only confirmed the executives’ prejudices.) Thompson has been lucky enough to have another career as a novelist and screenwriter. Still, we’ve missed seeing her in the juicy roles that she should have on screen.

If it accomplishes nothing else, The Children Act, which has its world premiere in Toronto, remedies that situation. In the London-set drama adapted from an acclaimed Ian McEwan novel, Thompson plays a High Court judge who specializes in family law cases. And she delivers what has to be one of the most nuanced and moving performances of her entire career. The film is also notable for showcasing another superb performance, by up-and-coming actor Fionn Whitehead (also featured prominently in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk). But his is essentially a strong supporting role, whereas Thompson appears in virtually every scene. With two performances of this caliber, the film is guaranteed to generate attention and acclaim, even though its downbeat subject matter represents a major commercial challenge. The film is seeking an American distributor, and it deserves to find one who will give it the marketing push that it needs.

Thompson’s character, Fiona Maye, is often charged with deciding excruciating family cases that would have tested Solomon. In fact, in the opening sequence, she is faced with a Solomon-like dilemma, the case of conjoined twins who will both die if they are not separated, whereas if they are separated, one will survive and the other will die. Such cases thrust her into battles over religion as well as family, but the British Children Act of 1989 that gives the film its title authorizes the court to act as the agent and protector of the child in such thorny cases.

The heart of the film brings her to the case of Adam Henry (Whitehead), who is in the hospital suffering from leukemia. Doctors believe that a blood transfusion will save his life, but Adam and his parents are Jehovah’s Witnesses, and their religion prohibits the mixing of blood. Since Adam is only 17, he is not deemed an adult, so he cannot decide for himself what he wants to do, though he claims to share his parents’ religious beliefs. Fiona hears the opinions of doctors as well as Adam’s parents, but then she makes the unconventional decision to visit Adam in the hospital, where she discovers an extraordinarily intelligent boy who happens to share her own love of music. Weighing the medical and religious issues, she ultimately decides to save Adam’s life by ordering the transfusion.

That is far from the end of the story, however. After his release from the hospital, Adam seeks out Fiona, eager to become much closer to the woman who saved his life. Needless to say, this provokes turmoil for both of them. Fiona has chosen not to have children, so the relationship with Adam awakens some deeply buried regrets about her own life choices.

There is a significant subplot in the movie, which concerns Fiona’s faltering marriage to Jack (Stanley Tucci), a university professor. But this part of the film is far less compelling than the interactions between Fiona and Adam. In his novel, McEwan was able to sketch more of the history of Jack and Fiona, whereas the film relies on one brief flashback—a wordless scene of the two of them in happier times—that is simply too brief and perfunctory to provide any emotional heft to the story of decaying marital love. Tucci is a fine actor, but he is stuck with the part that more often goes to women in film; he is cast as the loving and frustrated helpmate who simply isn’t given enough material to create a substantial character. (How Fiona ended up married to an American is never explained.)

Nevertheless, the two central performances could hardly be better. Thompson works here with remarkable subtlety. Although she has some courtroom speeches that she delivers with panache, she’s at her best simply when reacting nonverbally to all the disruptions in her life. The gradations in her facial expressions are eloquent; this is film acting at its most trenchant and illuminating. Whitehead attracts us because of his thoughtfulness and curiosity, and yet he has the emotional openness that Fiona has lost, and that’s why the duel between them is so wrenching. Fiona’s one huge error of judgment is that she doesn’t realize that even with his intelligence, Adam is still an emotionally confused teenager, and she hasn’t taken into account the impact that her momentous decision will have on a sheltered, still maturing boy.

The film has been intelligently adapted by McEwan himself, and Richard Eyre (Iris, Notes on a Scandal, and the underrated Stage Beauty) has done a good job of direction in certain scenes. A musical performance that ends in a breakdown by Fiona is especially well handled, and Eyre adds a telling visual touch in the final scene that was not in the novel. But the director also makes a few miscalculations that hurt the film. Although veteran composer Stephen Warbeck is credited for his score, much of the music actually consists of passages from Bach that add an unfortunate touch of ponderousness and pretension to the film. The story is lugubrious enough without including this dirgelike music to punish the audience.

– Stephen Farber, The Hollywood Reporter