The Children Act doesn't do justice to Ian McEwan's novel

by James Robins / 17 December, 2018
RelatedArticlesModule - The Children Act movie review

Emma Thompson may be on the bench but legal drama The Children Act is yet another example of the limits of literary adaptation.

The Children Act is the second film this year that writer Ian McEwan has adapted from one of his novels. And, similar to On Chesil Beach, the result is patchy.

As with much of McEwan’s fiction, The Children Act is shot through with evocative religious themes: redemption, sacrifice, revelation, judgment. The inimitable Emma Thompson stars as Fiona Maye, a British High Court judge burdened with troubling cases. Early on, in her own “Judgment of Solomon”, she must rule on whether to separate conjoined twins, even though one of them will inevitably die.

The toll of her work rebounds on her crumbling marriage to academic Jack (Stanley Tucci), just as she’s handed an urgent new file: a teenage Jehovah’s Witness named – wait for it – Adam (Fionn Whitehead) has leukaemia and is refusing a transfusion. The “soul is in the blood and it belongs to God”, his parents claim. Presumably, God gave him corrupted blood in the first place, but Fiona presides over a “court of law, not of morals”. She can override the wishes of a minor to save his life.

This heady moral dilemma only governs the first half of the story. The rest is consumed with the consequences of her decision, and it is then that the film steadily departs the bounds of believability.

The two leads, Thompson and Whitehead, are stark contrasts – her composed, erudite performance carries the film. He, on the other hand, brings it down with bursts of immature whingeing and exasperation.

The strength of McEwan’s writing is in the intricacy of his language and the quiet devastation he often visits on his characters. On the page, Adam’s actions made sense and followed the logic of a redeemed martyr. When translated to the screen, however, subtle tragedy gives way to melodrama and things begin to look very contrived, as if the characters were not human beings with agency but marionettes.

So, as with On Chesil Beach, the adaptation of The Children Act proves that sometimes literature can achieve things that film cannot.

IN CINEMAS NOW

★★★

Video: Roadshow Films NZ

This article was first published in the December 22, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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