The spellbinding Dame Emma Thompson plays Fiona, or Mrs Justice Maye, a judge in family court who must rule in a case where a Jehovah’s Witness teenager is refusing the blood transfusion that could save his life.
She must tackle this huge professional challenge against the backdrop of a crumbling marriage with her husband, played brilliantly by Stanley Tucci. Based on the novel by the ever-impressive Ian McEwan, the characters are each remarkably flawed as well as sympathetic to the audience.
Flawed most of all is Fiona herself, and Thompson delivers an utterly unrivalled performance. Fiona’s emotional distance from the people in her life hides the intensity of the turmoil she undergoes throughout, completely destabilised in all aspects of her life, with no one she’s willing to turn to.
The young boy is played by Dunkirk breakout Ffion Whitehead, who brings a sensitivity and genuine earnestness to Adam. In every look, in every furrowed brow and honest question, his sheltered upbringing is clear to see, as well as the crisis of faith which occurs. The connection between Adam and Fiona is brought to vivid life in a scene at his bedside, when the Judge makes the unusual decision to visit him in order to ascertain his own views on the matter. It’s this respect for his agency — not found in his parents or the hospital staff — that cements their bond.
A motif that runs throughout is that of Fiona’s own childlessness — something which does not make her monstrous as it so often does in literature or on screen, but rather simply more vulnerable to this maternal connection that she is so unprepared for.
This tangle of emotions is as messy and complicated as real life, which would make the altogether too neat conclusion feel trite, were Thompson not such a stellar actor. Her performance elevates what seems too tied-up an ending to the emotional climax it needs to be.
Tucci throughout is stalwart and tender in his performance, making it impossible not to see things from his perspective too. It’s a rare thing to see a steady supporting character given as much dimension as he is in a relatively small amount of screen time, but The Children Act does it perfectly.
Nigel Pauling plays Fiona’s much-enduring clerk with quiet loyalty. The friendship between the two is a hidden gem of the film – unspoken yet undeniable.
The setting for the film – in the Royal Courts of Justice and the nearby apartments, lend authenticity to this look inside a world that’s often dramatised, but never like this.
The Children Act is out in UK cinemas on August 24th, distributed by Entertainment One.