Director: Richard Eyre
Stars: Emma Thompson, Stanley Tucci, Fionn Whitehead
Released: 24th August 2018 (UK)
Whenever my legal and media worlds cross paths the results tend to be interesting. Like the time I went from care proceedings in Ipswich county court to judging a heat of the Miss Universe beauty pageant then owned by one Mr D. Trump. But I digress.
Last year Emma Thompson sat at the back of the President’s courtroom during a case in which I was representing one of the parties. She’d come to observe one of the family division’s lady justices in action as part of her research for a new film she was preparing to star in. Then, a few weeks ago I saw the film The Children Act at a press screening.
Emma Thompson (Saving Mr Banks, Beauty and the Beast) plays Mrs Justice Fiona Maye, a family law judge tasked with deciding the fate of a young man who is in hospital refusing to have the blood transfusion that could save his life. Adam, two months short of his 18th birthday, so still legally a child, has cancer and is desperately ill but he also has religious beliefs which do not allow him to undertake the treatment he needs. As a Jehovah’s Witness Adam (Fionn Whitehead) believes that his blood is the essence of what makes him human. He doesn’t want to mix that blood with that of another person. The doctors say that without the transfusion Adam risks renal failure, blindness and an agonising death. However, Adam and his parents played by Ben Chaplin and Eileen Walsh, stand firm.
It falls to Justice Maye to decide whether to go against the clear wishes of an articulate, intelligent teenager and determine that his welfare, as her paramount consideration under the Children Act, requires that the hospital forcibly give him the transfusion or to accede to his impassioned arguments and let him die.
Following the recent cases of Charlie Gard and Alfie Evans which made headlines worldwide and polarised the public, the story is topical and the moral, legal, ethical arguments raised by it are very real.
It’s somewhat surprising then how little this film plays to the emotions of the audience. While there are moving moments, such as when Justice Maye goes to the bedside of Adam to hear from him directly, overall the film runs briskly through the opposing arguments with a curious sense of detachment.
Justice Maye meanwhile becomes a little too involved with the case and this steers the story in an implausible direction which weakens the central life or death premise. The latter could have been explored in greater depth with a searing focus on the intense pressure judges in these cases come under as their every word and decision is scrutinised by a sensationalist media, religious bodies and the unforgiving and shrill court of public opinion on social media. Instead, Adam’s case is too sanitised and clinical to fully engage with.
Similarly the subplot of the judge’s floundering marriage doesn’t quite work. Stanley Tucci has the thankless role of the husband of a strong, high achieving woman who spends his time either being supportive and proud or moping because she doesn’t have time for him. The cliches are all here (even though cliches can be true to life); workaholic, childless woman, strong and powerful in her career, unable to hold a relationship together in her personal life. Predictably the two elements of the judge’s life come together via the case – the childless, successful woman deciding the life or death of a child. What deeply repressed emotions and desires will come to the surface? How much of the decision making is professional and how much personal?
This is a world of lawyers with upper lips as stiff as the collars they dress up in, of polite, unrevealing language and hardback books full of ancient laws. ‘Have you ever been wild and free?’ Mrs Justice Maye asks her clerk at one point as she ponders her own lost youth.
Emma Thompson’s performance, without doubt, elevates this film from what might have been a tv drama to a cinematic feature. Her research in the Royal Courts of Justice last year paid off. She produces a meticulously accurate portrayal of a High Court judge. She’s got the facial expressions while listening to witnesses giving oral evidence down to a tee. Her elegant black suits in court and colourful evening wear, hair and mannerisms are all on point.
Like me, lawyers will probably watch The Children Act wearing both their lawyer’s hat and that of the layman film-goer. With the first they will be checking to see if the depiction of the legal process is accurate ( or as accurate as a dramatised version can be). And with the second will want to be engaged in the story and be moved, amused, angered, touched by it as appropriate.
They might find it, then, to be a film of two halves. The legal aspect is largely accurate with considerable attention to detail. The film is shot on location and the RCJ and Grays Inn have rarely looked as impressive and imposing while even High Holborn is given a certain romantic glow. (Incidentally, lawyers fretting about why a family judge is shown dressed in robes in the trailer for The Children Act need not worry. There is a reason for it).
The drama aspect doesn’t quite take off, either in the court case at the heart of the story or in the subsequent attempt at a tepid stalker thriller. However, overall, this is a well made, finely acted, intelligently scripted film which isn’t a sequel or the umpteenth instalment in a superhero franchise and for that alone it deserves to be supported.
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