Thompson plays Fiona Maye, a no-nonsense workaholic British family court judge bouncing from one heart-wrenching case to the next. Her long marriage to Jack is on the rocks because of her job, which demands all of her time while, increasingly, extinguishing her desire for intimacy.
Just as Jack reveals his plan to have an affair (but not end the marriage), Fiona is called to rule upon the case of an almost-18-year-old cancer patient, Adam (Fionn Whitehead), who — with his parents blessing — is refusing a life-saving blood transfusion because of his beliefs as a Jehovah’s Witnesses.
The first third of the film rolls out like a standard courtroom procedural with a slight twist: after hearing arguments for and against the transfusion, Fiona visits Adam in hospital to try and gauge his understanding of the consequences of refusing treatment. Adam lives, and then pursues Fiona in search of knowledge while questioning his religious convictions and those of his family.
Adam’s quest is intended to mirror Fiona’s own inner search for what family means, but under Richard Eyre’s (Notes on a Scandal) direction, we get red herrings rather than powerful reveals of Fiona’s complex interior monologue. Is Adam a stalker? An obsessive? What we most want to know is: Can a father willing to let a son die for religious beliefs ever be considered loving? And can a childless person understand the weight and depth of parenting?
These compelling questions don’t get big play and fail to spark much drama. Instead, we get an increasingly unfocused Fiona struggling to keep going as Jack circles from the sidelines and everyone downs scotch. Watching Tucci and Thompson is a pleasure and together they create enough heat to keep us interested. But The Children Act has virtually no climax, and a sad ending with negligible redemption. Art imitating life? Maybe. But I couldn’t help but wish for a bit more narrative heft.
The Children Act. Directed by Richard Eyre. Starring Emma Thompson, Stanley Tucci, and Fionn Whitehead. Opens September 14.