Though it's only now limping into cinemas over a year after its bow at the 2017 Toronto Film Festival, one could make the argument that ‘The Children Act’ forms an interesting opposite side of the same coin as Steven Spielberg and Meryl Streep’s ‘The Post’ – each an adult drama reminiscent of a bygone era, hinging on the decision-making process of a powerful woman of a certain age.
I guess the main difference between the two films, though, is that where ‘The Post’ is good, ‘The Children Act’ is, well... bad. Quite bad, in fact.
Let me explain. Adapted from his own novel by markedly hit-and-miss purveyor of melodrama Ian McEwan (author of ‘Atonement’), the film follows High Court judge Fiona Maye (Emma Thompson, magnificent as always) as she is besieged with dramatic decision-making duties in both her professional and personal lives. In the former, she must rule on whether a 17 year-old Jehovah’s Witness on death’s door (Fionn Whitehead, making good on the promise of ‘Dunkirk’) should be forced to accept the blood transfusion that would go against his faith yet save his life; and in the latter, she must deal with her husband (Stanley Tucci, forever daddy) announcing that he intends to have an affair because of how invested in their marriage he is, leaving her to decide whether she should file for divorce or suffer this indignity for the sake of their lives together.
Such overly tidy thematic parallels are, of course, de rigueur for literary adaptations of this type, but that doesn’t make them any less unbearable in this dull collection of po-faced contrivances masquerading as mature, thoughtful drama. Were it not for the Herculean efforts of Emma Thompson - still one of the most dependably and rigorously intelligent performers working today - there wouldn’t be a single trace of recognisable human behaviour in the entirety of director Richard Eyre’s resounding misfire (the delicious camp of his ‘Notes on a Scandal’ and the emotional acuity of his ‘Iris’ seem very long ago, indeed).
Amongst last-minute races across town, bewildering confrontations and completely incomprehensible lapses in judgment, Thompson, blessedly, is somehow able to find the intellectual spark behind a fascinating woman that the script and direction keep trying to obscure. Somehow, she is able to delineate the shades of buried sorrow and the weight of the constant cerebral deliberations that lie in wait behind her prickly demeanour. Unlike the film around her, Thompson never makes the mistake of judging her character for daring to be a woman that some would describe as "cold" or "removed", instead finding the reserved nuance that the film itself so sorely lacks.
For one, the film reveals itself upon closer inspection to be almost entirely thematically vacant. Sure, it may look like it has lofty ambitions towards actual thought, but there really isn’t any there there, y’know? Uninterested in the science vs religion debate that you would think would be at its centre, the story races through Fiona’s decision-making process but doesn’t really let us dwell on the consequences of her decisions either. Instead, it so strangely front-loads all of her acts of narrative drive that for the entire second hour she is reduced to listening and watching as the men around her make active choices and grand statements to, for and about her, while she merely sits glumly and barely responds to them. It makes it annoyingly transparent that this is the clumsy idea two men have of a powerful woman, so stymied is the character by the plot machinations around her. (Which is also to say nothing of the fact that apparently this is a woman who almost never interacts with other women – get her and ‘A Star Is Born’s' Ally in a room together to talk about unimaginative male screenwriters, stat.)
Thompson, blessedly, is somehow able to find the intellectual spark behind a fascinating woman that the script and direction keep trying to obscure
Most upsetting, however, are the film’s visuals. With a genre that used to be a staple of film and now is so rarely seen outside of TV, it becomes increasingly frustrating to watch a film so blithely waste its cinematic potential. Directed as if Eyre had watched a Nancy Meyers movie and thought her mastery of every shade of beige a bit too garish, the film is so visually anaemic as to inspire concern. London has never been more washed out or colourless – London! Seriously. Even worse, it looks as if the dreaded motion smoothing feature that plagues modern televisions has been adapted for the big screen, so profoundly ugly is the ineptitude behind the film’s digital photography and possibly non-existent colour grading.
It’s genuinely disappointing to see a film like this – beloved female star, intelligent author, proven director – so thoroughly miss the mark, yet that’s exactly what ‘The Children Act’ does. Emma Thompson deserves so, so much better. Now please, give it to her.