There are a lot of big questions posed in “The Children Act,” but this astringently stark adaptation of the novel by Ian McEwan (“Atonement,” “On Chesil Beach”) ultimately asks one: Who gets to decide the answers for all the others?
Judge Fiona Maye, played with simmering intensity by Emma Thompson, is a family-court magistrate in London. She deals with high-profile, life-or-death cases every day — like the one where she must rule whether to let doctors separate conjoined twins, which would kill one of them, against the wishes of the babies’ parents.
While Fiona handles such cases calmly and with detachment, and avoiding the media firestorms that each case brings, her personal life isn’t so rosy. Her husband of 21 years, Jack (Stanley Tucci), one day declares that he wants to have an affair — to make up for the fact that he and Fiona haven’t had sex in nearly a year. Fiona’s reaction is clear: “You do this, we’re done. Simple as that.”
As she tries to deal with her crumbling marriage, another big case lands in her docket. Adam Henry (played by “Dunkirk” star Fiona Whitehead) is three months’ shy of his 18th birthday, and suffering from leukemia. The doctors have the drugs to treat his illness, but they recommend he take a blood transfusion to lessen the side effects. But Adam and his parents (Ben Chaplin and Eileen Walsh) are Jehovah’s Witnesses, who believe that blood is sacred and that transfusions are against God’s will.
Fiona hears the arguments from the hospital and the Henrys, and even takes the unusual step of visiting Adam in hospital to understand his passionate defense of his religious beliefs. Then she makes her ruling — a decision with life-altering consequences for everyone concerned.
Director Richard Eyre (“Notes on a Scandal”) and McEwan, adapting his own novel into a screenplay, capture the story’s many stage-ready moments — both the courtroom scenes and Fiona and Jack’s marital disintegration would play well on the West End or Broadway — with a brutal quiet, so we hear every silent frustration in the characters’ voices. Those silences are important because, this being McEwan, it’s what characters don’t say to each other that hits as powerfully as what they do.
Thompson gives a stellar performance, as she labors to separate her personal warmth and her flinty professional manor separate but finds one bleeding into the other in emotionally devastating ways. She sharpens her performance on her two foils, Tucci and Whitehead, who bring out her wounded pride and her mournful motherly instincts, respectively.
Eyre and McEwan sometimes move so subtly, so calmly, that it’s not until the movie’s end that the full emotional impact of “The Children Act” is felt. When it hits, though, it packs a hard punch.
‘The Children Act’
Opened Sept. 14 in select cities; opens Friday, Sept. 28 at the Broadway Centre Cinemas (Salt Lake City) and the Megaplex Jordan Commons (Sandy). Rated R for a sexual reference. Running time: 105 minutes.