Films where characters are presented with a moral dilemma usually give rise to thought-provoking conversations. In the 2015 war thriller Eye in the Sky, the decency of the U.S. military is examined when they must decide if they should bomb a group of terrorists if it also means killing a young girl near the targeted site. In 2007’s Gone Baby Gone, the question posed at the end of the film is whether the wellbeing of a child should be risked in favor of a neglectful mother’s rights.
The complicated, life-altering situations continue in The Children Act, a polarizing and ultimately erratic drama starring two-time Academy Award-winning actress Emma Thompson (Sense and Sensibility) as an English judge assessing a controversial case. Although Thompson is a gem, The Children Act minimizes its most interesting courtroom narrative with insignificant storylines during the first half before transforming into an entirely different — and less absorbing — picture in the second.
Thompson stars as Fiona Maye, a High Court justice living in London with her American professor husband Jack (Stanley Tucci), who confesses to her that he has become dissatisfied with their passionless marriage. Besides placing added stress on Fiona, who is obviously a workaholic, the revelation doesn’t add much to the screenplay adapted by Ian McEwan (On Chesil Beach) from his own 2014 novel of the same name. Still, McEwan and director Richard Eyre (Notes on a Scandal) milk the relationship problems for all they’re worth, which hurts the impact of the film’s main moral issue.
The case that comes across Fiona’s desk is of Adam Henry (Fionn Whitehead), a devout 17-year-old Jehovah’s Witness and leukemia patient who sites his religious beliefs and refuses a life-saving blood transfusion. Despite having little time to weigh the circumstances fully (Adam will die soon without the procedure), Fiona makes an unprecedented move and chooses to meet Adam at the hospital before she makes a final ruling.
Until the encounter takes place, The Children Act, named after a law in the United Kingdom that requires the protection of a child’s welfare, is a well-developed and smart story in spite of the overplayed and hollow marital spat. Where the film comes apart is when we step out of the courtroom and into an awkward scenario where Fiona’s personal life collides with her work life in a way she’s never experienced before.
As the pragmatic Fiona, Thompson gives a brilliantly direct performance — one that will probably be overshadowed by showier characters once awards season starts getting serious — and stands out as one of her best since 2013’s Saving Mr. Banks. A major opportunity is missed, however, when the script chooses to take a clumsy route rather than a compelling one when it hits the homestretch.