At the start of The Children Act, British High Court judge Fiona Maye (Emma Thompson) is so consumed by her work that she hardly cares when her husband, Jack (Stanley Tucci), leaves their home in protest of her negligence. Fiona isn’t blindsided. If anything, she’s relieved. She’s shut down his every well-meaning suggestion for reclaiming intimacy, from going to the opera to attending a game night with fellow scotch-drinking rich couples. Which leads him to ask on the eve of his departure: “When is the last time we made love?” Fiona is too busy to search for an answer, fumbling with newspaper clippings about her current case and taking the first unorthodox steps concerning her next one: a 17-year-old boy, Adam (Fionn Whitehead), whose parents refuse to let him have a blood transfusion on the basis of their religion.
Director Richard Eyre’s adaptation of the novel by Ian McEwan, who also wrote the film’s screenplay, could have been a great commentary, if not indictment, of the ways in which British relationships are so often architected around a complete denial of feelings—or, at least, negative ones. Instead, The Children Act stages the clumsiness of belated domestic confrontations with the very coldness that’s kept its characters from having discussed their emotions for decades and from having had sex for almost a year. The story, then, privileges the topics it addresses, the relationship between personal freedom and the law, instead of the sentiments that its premise inevitably evokes: seduction and power, desire and despair. This leads to a removed way of displaying conflict that makes The Children Act closer to an epic PSA than a cinematic experience rife with audience-character identification.
Even the motifs in the film carry the overtly logical aura of a mathematical decision. The moments when Fiona is about to engage in some kind of emotional exchange are all obviously cut short, as if in adherence to a Peter Kubelka-like sense of rhythm. The excess and the staging of the interruptions all seem driven by a mechanical aura, from Fiona catching herself looking at the empty hangers where her husband’s shirts used to hang, to her assistant (Jason Watkins) entering her office when she’s about to send a reconciliatory text message to her husband for the first time (“Having fun?”).
Passion, along with the delicious disorder that so often accompanies it, is only allowed into The Children Act toward the end, when we realize that Adam’s pursuit of Fiona is less a creepy show of neediness than it is lustful. And, best of all, that Fiona is both flattered and sexually aroused by the now-18-year-old boy. But the film is too shy about exploring the erotic connection that it so tardily suggests, or committing to a message about our being slotted into partnerships we don’t actually want and being barred from unusual ones—such as one between a formerly sick teenage boy and the judge who saved him—that could bring about a deep, and deeply erotic, bonding.
A surprisingly reciprocal kiss toward the end of Eyre’s film is perhaps where this story should have started, were it willing to risk following desire where desire leads instead of abiding by the insipid rules of repression that have locked its characters into place to begin with. The Children Act’s most egregious blasphemy, however, is in breaking Robert Bresson’s golden rule against redundancy when it lays the melodramatic sounds of a violin atop the sight of a masterfully expressive Emma Thompson’s visage as Fiona bawls for the first time in the film, screaming, “He was just a child!”