And the Oscar goes to… Emma Thompson in The Children Act. Without reservations Ms Thomson’s turn as a very responsible, very English high court judge dealing with endless heart-wrenching family and children’s’ legal issues, with the wisdom of Solomon and the stoic countenance of Socrates, is an absolute DON’T MISS if you want an adult movie that makes you think deeply about what it means to have a vocation, a relationship and middle-age regrets.
The Children Act is a subtle, un-flashy film. It’s almost dogme in its plainness. There is a deliberateness to every shot and line of dialogue even though often nothing ‘happens’.
From the monochrome colour palette to the noticeable city soundscape. There’s a restrained intensity in each look, footfall and piano keystroke (because music is as central to this as it in A Star is Born) .This film has been masterfully tailored to fit its themes perfectly.
If you’re not paying attention then The Children Act would seem incredibly boring. But if you loved Glenn Close inThe Wife or watching Patricia Clarkson in Sharp Objects and House of Cards, or the quieter works of Sofia Coppola, you’ll understand how an older actress, standing in her mastery, is a performance worthy of your attention.
Thomson is Judge Fiona May, a workaholic defined by the burdens of her responsibility. She keeps her emotions bottled, wears only black on black and has short hair; it’s impeccable but clearly a sexless uniform. In stark contrast a fellow judge tells cheesy jokes about lawyers and wears ostentatious pinstripes – so she doesn’t have to be this way, she has chosen the shadows. In flashback we see Fiona in a flowy ice-blue top and a blonde bob delightfully accepting a baby grand piano for her birthday. She is feminine, relaxed and easily expresses emotion.
In the present, thinking woman’s totty, Stanley Tucci, is her neglected philosophy-teaching husband, Jack, desperate to rekindle the magic they’ve shared for 20 years. He loves her deeply but finally threatens an affair. Blaming her responsibilities, Fiona shuts down.
Early on in the film are two Easter eggs that define the story. While arguing, Fiona accuses Jack of holding onto resentment for the ‘baby she couldn’t give him’ and in class, Jack teaches about a time after Greek philosophy but before Christianity. He asks the students to consider how we can be moral when we don’t have rules imposed on us? How do we define ethics when there is no external framework?
Into their elite intellectual world comes an urgent case of a 17-year-old Jehovah’s Witness boy, Adam, who is refusing a blood transfusion for leukemia. His parents (hello dark and sexy Ben Chaplin! I remember you from your Merchant Ivory days. Brooding and yummy) are fighting the hospital to prevent the transfusion, which will likely kill their son.
Fionn Whitehead (Dunkirk) is Adam. He is the kind of beautiful almost-man that sonnets are written about. His dark eyes, porcelain-white skin and chiseled cheekbones inspire poetry… and also Fiona. Whether it’s the baby she didn’t have or the innocence of youth, her and Adam bond over music and Yeats poetry in his hospital bed. The part of her she’s tried desperately to quash with logic and work and piano is about to break out.
However this story never goes the way you think. It’s not played for soap, sentimentality or drama but deftly explores the life of a modern woman at her professional peak. Adam is also not a cipher for her lost choices. In him we see what happens to passionate, curious children who enter adulthood and realize adults are fallible and their truth cannot be trusted. He unravels loudly while she unravels painfully and quietly.
This film has a lot to say about privilege, truth, law, religion, marriage, parenting, art and living in a complex society. It’s worth listening to but you’ll have to lean in.
Irena Bee is a movie and TV reviewer whose day job is travelling Australia as a storytelling trainer and speaker for nonprofits and community groups. She runs 44 Playbook and you can find her on most social platforms as 44Playbook.