I’m ambivalent about Ian McEwan as an author – Chesil Beach, tick; Atonement, hand wobble; Amsterdam, get me outta here. So finding out
The Children Act
was by McEwan made me pause. But Emma Thompson was playing the lead, a Family Court Judge called Fiona Maye which rather swung it for us.
Powerful women in film can sometimes slip into stereotypes but the subtly of McEwan’s characterisation and Thompson’s performance comes at you in a variety of ways. She’s used to dispensing the Wisdom, if not of Solomon then certainly involving life, death and family tragedy. The thing that strikes you is the focus, the intensity with which she absorbs what she needs to do her job while giving nothing away.
For someone whose whole raison d’être is to judge, she excludes judgement from her every move. You simply don’t know how she will react to the awful cases before her until she speaks. Hers is an extraordinary performance of powerful passivity.
The centre of the story surrounds a seventeen year old boy who has a form of leukemia which means, if he doesn’t have a blood transfusion, he will most likely die. But he is a Jehovah’s Witness as are his parents. The judge has to decide, on an emergency application, what is to be done. I won’t spoil how the story spins out, and the tension inherent in it. Suffice it to say it is not milked, gratuitous or in anyway unfair on the tenets of the faith portrayed by the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
It is really a story about the consuming nature of power and how those whose responsibility it is to determine the major decisions in our society based on legal and ethical principles can find it crushing when they have to apply a similar set of judgements to their own private lives, especially if such lives are not running in such a controlled and ordered way as is the case in the courts.
There were moments when McEwan’s irritating inclination to tend to the absurd in how he has his characters behave threatened to make me scream at the screen but I managed to swallow my ire. He really needs an editor to tell him not to be an utter tit. I suppose he’s such a good seller, no publisher wants to slow the process of getting the books out there and these things are allowed to pass. But suspending my aggravation so as to allow Emma Thompson to work her acting magic wasn’t hard; I’d crawl quite a distance and even go without ice cream to see her perform. If we worried who’d take over as our senior female actor, post Judi Dench, then there are several candidates happily – and Thompson is high on that list.
See it. You won’t be disappointed if you enjoy great acting.