“The Children Act” isn’t all that interesting a movie, despite the many talented people involved and the generally high level of work they do. The most interesting thing about it is how it presents a case study in the very different way style can determine what works on the screen vs. what works on the page.
As a British High Court judge, Emma Thompson manages to walk an emotional tightrope between authority and distress — and do it so expertly the tightrope looks wider than any bridge across the Thames. (The movie’s set in London.) Stanley Tucci, as her husband, is nothing less than the ever-reliable Stanley Tucci: quizzical, shrewd, compact in gesture and expression. Fionn Whitehead, as an emotionally over-the-top 17-year-old, gives a suitably (and affectingly) over-the-top performance. Richard Eyre (“Iris,” “Notes on a Scandal”) directs with a skill so unobtrusive you can hardly miss its sureness.
Ian McEwan adapted his 2014 novel. McEwan is one of the finest living novelists in English: intelligent and probing and almost alarmingly alert. That intelligence can produce a neatness in his books that we salute as structural excellence. Style makes it work; style persuades. Reading, when the prose is that good, is believing.
That same neatness, when watched on the screen, comes across as a very different sort of structuring: an emotional and thematic tidiness that has as much to do with life as crossword puzzles do. Seeing is undermining.
The tidiness starts with the name of Thompson’s character: Fiona Maye, who may — or may not. She presides over emotionally charged trials relating to family law. She and her husband, Jack, are childless. Perhaps that’s just as well. Oh, the post-bohemian, everything-in-its-casual-place luxe of their apartment. Who knew that magistrates and academics (he’s a humanities professor) made so much in England? That’s not just a set-decoration quibble. It’s indicative of the sort of just-so unreality that informs too much of “The Children Act.”
The plot hinges on a case that involves Whitehead’s character, Adam (speaking of significant names). To treat his illness, he needs a blood transfusion. If he doesn’t receive one, he may die. He and his parents are Jehovah’s Witnesses, whose faith prohibits receiving a transfusion. Since Adam is (just) under legal age, the law — the Children Act, hence the title — gives the judge the right to decide what is in the best interest of the under-age patient. Unexpectedly, she decides to visit the boy in his hospital. They make an immediate emotional connection. Adam’s guitar playing and her knowing Yeats’s words to one of the tunes helps. Don’t worry, the scene’s not as ridiculous as it sounds.
It’s easy enough to see how all these elements — thematic, emotional, narrative — might mesh as text. Performed by actors — especially actors this good, whose sure-handedness is like a spotlight on phoniness — these elements get a mite much. Did we mention that Fiona and Jack’s marriage is on the rocks? A very public charity event where Fiona (a dedicated pianist) is to perform? Lots of rain for confrontations to occur in? The overall effect is very PBS. Imagine three, maybe even four, episodes on “Masterpiece.” Yet even the extra time afforded by that treatment couldn’t keep the thematic and emotional boxcars from bumping into each other.
THE CHILDREN ACT
Directed by Richard Eyre. Written by Ian McEwan, adapted from his novel. Starring Emma Thompson, Stanley Tucci, Fionn Whitehead. At West Newton. 105 minutes. R (for a sexual reference).
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.