The Children Act (2017)


Nuance and complexity in portraits of moral dilemma are a hallmark of British cinema and The Children Act (2017)deploy these in abundance. It’s a story of the perfect mid-life firestorm: High Court Judge grapples with life and death decisions while her marriage hits the rocks and she becomes emotionally entangled with a 17-year old boy whose life she saved from the bench.

Forensically logical Judge Fiona May (Emma Thompson) is the epitome of the British legal establishment. With a steely gaze, she sees through the verbiage of lesser counsel, and applies the law as Parliament intended. We meet her immersed in work and neglecting her marriage to free-thinking academic Jack (Stanley Tucci). Emotionally rising above her  own legal and personal judgement, she is the kind of person who loses no sleep after allowing the separation of conjoint twins on the grounds that one living child outweighs two dead ones. Next, an emergency ruling must be made to save the life of dying teenager Adam (Fionn Whitehead) whose Jehovah Witness parents are refusing a blood transfusion on the grounds that it violates God’s word. At the same time, her husband announces that he wants to have an affair

The Children Act empowers the judge to summarily overrule the parents because Adam is under 18, yet she is impelled to personally meet the boy in hospital and hear him speak. The child-less judge is impressed by Adam’s intelligent awareness of his predicament and the two strike-up an unusual friendship. She rules as everyone expected; the boy’s life is more important than the family’s religious beliefs. Soon after his recovery, he begins to reappear in Fiona’s life and her logical mind becomes emotionally compromised. Her world is shattered when Adam has a relapse and, having turned 18, refuses a transfusion.

What makes this film so riveting is the way its narrative layers intersect and the issues they raise. The supremacy of law over the human right to religious belief, the vesting of life and death power in mortal hands, and the potential for judicial processes to be influenced by emotion, are all challenging contemporary issues. So too are the insights into Jehovah Witness doctrine that it is better to die than accept medical treatment prohibited by God. Each of these are worthy of their own film.

Dame Emma Thompson is one the few actors who can portray, mostly through facial expression and voice intonation, the gravity of a judicial role balanced against the vulnerability of being human. Superb support performances by Stanley Tucci and Fionn Whitehead, with tight editing and a suspense-style of photography, ticks all the boxes for a thought-provoking film that keeps you engaged to its final scenes.


Director: Richard Eyre

Stars: Emma Thompson, Stanley Tucci, Fionn Whitehead