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“The Children Act,” unequal, at times awkward, clamors for well-deserved attention

Film is based on the eponymous 2014 novel by Ian McEwan
Emma Thompson, Stanley Tucci and Fionn Whitehead
Directed by Richard Eyre

For better or for worse, Ian McEwan doesn’t see much virtue in religious beliefs or faith. To him, they are a hindrance at best, an absurdity at worst. Founders and practitioners of various religions and cults come up with a logic completely devoid of reason, one that’s meant only to establish their power on the sheep that follow them. Not mincing words, he makes the point in “The Children Act,” for which McEwan wrote the script on the basis of his own eponymous novel, for a film directed by Richard Eyre, starring Emma Thompson in a superlative turn and Stanley Tucci, excellent as always.

Most of the cases that come before Judge Fiona May (to be addressed as “My Lady”) are the result of some misguided and poorly-understood religious precepts that didn’t hold water in the first place: Catholic parents who would rather let both their conjoined twins die rather than save one for a normal life (rationale: Only God can decide who lives and who dies), a Moroccan Muslim father who wants to remove his daughter from the custody of his British wife, (rationale: she isn’t observant enough to properly raise the child,) and, mainly, a young man who will reach his majority in two months but for whom, for the time being, decisions are made by his Jehovah’s Witness-afflicted parents. They will not accept the indispensable transfusion that will save their son’s life (rationale: transfusions are banned in Genesis–never mind that the medical procedure was not invented until 1945).

The judge’s blueprint remains the Children Act, by way of which British law frames decisions to be made in the child’s interest, therefore moral rather than spiritual.

The film runs on two parallel tracks. The first is the falling apart of Judge May’s conjugal life as her loving husband Jack (Tucci), tired of the lack of intimacy with his harried wife, briefly strays, keeping her informed, which leads to immediate reprisal on her part.

The second is the highly-charged court proceedings, with the inevitable surrounding media turmoil. The decision, when rendered, brings about a violent attachment for the judge on the part of the young man saved by the transfusion. Unhappy, understandably enough, with his parents’ unyielding choice to let him die rather than go against the teachings of the church’s elders, he rejects both them and their faith and, barnacle-like, attaches himself to the next available person to love, the judge who saved him. From then on, the film veers into awkward territory, in scenes not always mastered by McEwan as may have been the case with the original book (The “On Chesil Beach” novella also stepped, unwittingly one assumes, into scenes not quite thought-through.) In this film, the lapse brings about some uncomfortably sentimental asides which somehow mar the whole. Yet, the story that unfolded splendidly till then, served by great actors, certainly deserves to be seen.