There are simply not enough films with Oscar winner Emma Thompson at the forefront. Director Richard Eyre (“Notes on a Scandal” and “Iris”) has crafted a rousing performance vehicle that could land Thompson back in awards consideration. The Children Act is written by Ian McEwan (“Atonement”) who’s one of the most wonderfully British screenwriters around. Eyre, at the screening in Toronto, described the film as being about a woman’s love for so many different things. There is so much complex humanity in this story that follows a tight-lipped judge trying to balance a marriage falling apart with some of the most serious and emotionally draining cases of her career. Thompson is so good evaluating the cases we see during the film, that it occurred to me this could easily be turned into a gripping and sustainable television series.
Justice Fiona Maye (Thompson) brushes off her husband’s request for dinner or even companionship before lights out. She has dedicated the late hours of the evenings to a court case before her tomorrow. She must decide to separate conjoined twins, resulting in one living and one dying, or allowing the twins to remain as they are and both perish. After an exhausting day, she returns home to their childless flat, where Jack (Stanley Tucci) gives her an ultimatum. Work on their intimacy, or he is going to have an affair. “The time to suggest an open marriage was before the wedding, not now,” she responds. Before her is another difficult decision, whether or not the hospital can give a blood transfusion to save the life of a 17-year-old leukemia patient, who is refusing the procedure based on religious beliefs.
It’s another film with a powerful performance from a leading female, a running theme at the 2017 Toronto Film Festival. After seeing the film, I can’t imagine anyone else but Thompson inhabiting this role. Her poise, her glare, Thompson is known for her warmth and humor, but that’s nowhere to be found here. She is a slightly softer Miranda Priestley in a different career. The bold musical score from Stephen Warbeck (“Billy Elliot” and “Shakespeare in Love”) helps connect one dramatic scene to another. The modern, liberal honesty coming from Tucci’s character is quite the contrast to Fiona, who is nearly in every sense of the word, conservative. This character is respectable from her clothing to her responses, except when she makes a split decision to visit 17-year-old Adam (Fionn Whitehead) in the hospital.
“The Children Act” does provide a fascinating look behind the modern day-to-day life of a judge. Being that as it may, this isn’t some judicial drama, it’s about one person who struggles to modify lifelong emotional authority when everything she’s built her life on comes into question. One of the producers noted that there isn’t a villain or bad guy in the narrative, not even the husband who threatens to cheat; he makes a convincing argument as to why he should. If “Notes on a Scandal” was about moral corruption in adults, then Eyre clears his conscious with “The Children Act,” focusing more on moral integrity. So many moments throughout the film offer the audience a chance to contemplate what they might do in her situation when presented with such hopeless odds. McEwan’s script, much like it did in “Atonement,” continues to surprise the audience every time you assume what happens next.
Final thought — Thompson delivers a performance that’s concentrated, strong and award-worthy, and the rest of the film is equally as engaging.