It’s a big year at the movies for Ian McEwan, a novelist who seems to enjoy pulling the carpet out from under his protagonists. In August we had On Chesil Beach, adapted by McEwan from his own novel of 2007. Now he has written a screenplay for The Children Act, published in 2014. McEwan is an author to be admired rather than liked, as his highly readable books can leave a nasty after-taste. Those careful, detail-perfect plots usually revolve around a central catastrophe for which the lead character may or may not be responsible. Rarely does anyone make an honest mistake and manage to escape the most dire consequences.
McEwan’s characters are like people who leave home in the morning to go to work, only to be hit by a bus – metaphorically speaking. Who would have thought that Edward and Florence in On Chesil Beach, could make such a hash of their wedding night that their lives would be forever scarred? In Atonement (2007), one lewd, jokey note sends Robbie’s future prospects down the drain. In The Children Act, directed by the experienced Richard Eyre, the inevitable crisis is not so cut-and-dried, but we can still feel the pain.
Emma Thompson is Chief Justice Fiona Maye of the High Court of Great Britain. Childless, fiftyish, decisive and professional in her work, she jokes that she is wedded to the law. This view is echoed by her flesh-and-blood husband, Jack (Stanley Tucci), a professor of Classics. Returning to her Gray’s Inn apartment from a hard day’s sentencing, Fiona is surprised by Jack’s sudden announcement that he wants to have an affair with a younger woman.
It’s not that he doesn’t love Fiona but their marriage has grown so stale and sexless he feels the need for a little excitement. He thinks he’s doing the decent thing by declaring his intentions, and hopes his wife will understand. It’s no surprise that Fiona’s rational, legal mind won’t stand this for a minute. When Jack packs a suitcase and leaves, she quickly changes the locks.
Amidst this personal turmoil our heroine is asked to adjudicate on a case of life-and-death. A 17-year-old boy named Adam, from a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses, is in need of a blood transfusion or he will die a horrible death. Because this is a taboo in his religion Adam and his parents are unwilling to permit the procedure. Fiona has to decide whether the doctors can overrule the parents to preserve Adam’s life.
She takes the unusual step of going to visit the patient in hospital and finds him to be a precocious, charming young man with a passion for poetry and the guitar. They exchange witticisms, and even sing a duet to a setting of W.B. Yeats’s verses, Down by the Salley Gardens.
This brief meeting makes a huge impression on Adam who becomes obsessed with Fiona as a strange mixture of love object and mother. Fiona, who always acts with strictest propriety, is caught at a vulnerable moment and struggles to make sense of her feelings.
The film is largely the story of this struggle as Fiona is forced to confront her own perceived shortcomings, those needs and desires that have been buried under decades of dedication to duty. Adam’s youth makes her realise how her own youthful energies have slipped away, while Jack’s desertion has left her feeling old and lonely. She has the law, and her love of music, but she begins to imagine her life as no more than a sustained piece of theatre – an “act” as implied by the film’s title.
What Fiona endures is not exactly a moral dilemma, as she is always clear about the correct way to behave. It’s more a matter of being torn apart from within by forces that were never previously given any oxygen.
Like so much of McEwan’s fiction, the British class system plays a role in shaping the characters’ attitudes and expectations. Fiona and Jack are not snobs, but are part of an educated elite, who mingle in the highest circles. Fiona is touched by the fact that Adam, from a lower middle-class background, is devoted to poetry and music. While she should be defending the principal that life itself is sacred, Fiona finds something especially appealing in the life of a young man with such lofty artistic ideals. Most boys his age save their enthusiasm for the footy.
Age, class, culture and duty are the paradigms explored in this brief but powerful fable. If there’s a right and a wrong involved it’s not immediately obvious. The film, like the book, is a conversation piece that will have viewers arguing over coffee.
Where the movie scores over the novel is in the commanding performance of Emma Thompson, who brings depth and complexity to a character that could easily come as across as cold. The book has the advantage when it comes to the ending, which McEwan has reworked in a heavy-handed manner to eliminate any ambiguities. He did exactly the same thing with On Chesil Beach, suggesting a lack of confidence in the cinema, or perhaps the audience. Authors always complain of the violence done to their books by scriptwriters but with McEwan the wounds are self-inflicted. After wreaking so much anguish on his characters he seems to have acquired a taste for it.
The Children Act
Directed by Richard Eyre
Written by Ian McEwan, after his own novel
Starring Emma Thompson, Stanley Tucci, Fionn Whitehead, Jason Watkins, Anthony Calf, Ben Chaplin, Eileen Walsh
UK, rated M, 105 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 8 December, 2018