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A Child's Best Interest Is The Subject Of Complex Debate In 'The Children Act'


This is FRESH AIR. The prize-winning English author Ian McEwan recently adapted two of his novels for the screen. The first film, "On Chesil Beach," was released earlier this year. The second film, "The Children Act," is a new legal drama starring Emma Thompson. She plays a family court judge trying to determine whether a minor can be forced to undergo a blood transfusion against his will. Film critic Justin Chang has this review.

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: "The Children Act" refers to a 1989 piece of British legislation that requires authorities to promote the welfare of minors first and foremost. But in Ian McEwan's 2014 novel - and now this polished, absorbing, if somewhat perplexing movie adaptation - determining a child's best interest is never as clear-cut as it seems. Fiona Maye, an esteemed high court judge played by a superb Emma Thompson, understands this difficulty better than most. Her every moment is consumed with bitter custody battles, grim medical dilemmas and other quandaries that threaten to tear families apart. And she brings to each ruling a lifetime's worth of expert discernment. One of the pleasures of the novel was how deeply it brought us into the intricacies of Fiona's legal reasoning, such as her decision to order a pair of conjoined twins to be separated. Is it lawful for the state to demand an operation that will save one boy but end his brother's life? And what of the twins' Catholic parents, who would prefer to leave the matter in God's hands?

The book argued persuasively for every possible side before allowing Fiona to render her judgment with Solomon-like authority. Although McEwan himself wrote the script, the movie doesn't have as much time to delve into the nuances of each argument. For all its measured intelligence and solid craftsmanship, "The Children Act" never fully springs to cinematic life. As crisply directed by Richard Eyre, who has roots in the English theater, it gives the creaky impression of having been adapted from a stage play. Still, it's always rewarding to watch Thompson bring her lucid wit and deep reserves of emotion to bear on Fiona as she puzzles over the toughest case of her career. That case involves a 17-year-old named Adam Henry who has leukemia and requires a blood transfusion. But Adam comes from a family of Jehovah's Witnesses, and he has refused the transfusion based on his belief that God forbids the intermixing of blood - but because Adam is still just months shy of adulthood, it falls to the court to decide his fate. After hearing both sides, Fiona takes an unusual step before making her decision.


EMMA THOMPSON: (As Fiona Maye) Given the unique circumstances of this case, I have decided I would like to hear from Adam himself. I need to know if he understands his situation and what he confronts should I rule against the hospital. I'll go now to Adam's bedside in the company of his guardian. I'll give judgment in open court when I return probably after 7 p.m.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Court rise...

CHANG: Whether a judge would actually pay such a hospital visit raises some plausibility issues, which the gravely ill Adam himself acknowledges. He's startled and captivated by the sight of Fiona suddenly at his bedside. As played by Fionn Whitehead, who made a strong impression last year in "Dunkirk," Adam is irreverent yet serious-minded, with a love for reading and writing poetry. Their visit ends in charmingly preposterous fashion, with Adam playing an old Irish folk song on his guitar while Fiona, herself a talented musician, sings along. I won't give away Fiona's ultimate judgment or the intriguing, if not entirely persuasive direction in which it takes the story. To its credit, "The Children Act" has no intention of resolving the conflict between medical expertise and religious principles. McEwan's larger point seems to be that when it comes to something as essential as a child's well-being, no jurist can be entirely dispassionate.

That even goes for Fiona, a consummate workaholic whose husband, played by Stanley Tucci, has just announced his intention to have an affair with one of his younger colleagues, citing Fiona's emotional and sexual neglect. Their contentious back-and-forth rather too neatly underscores one of the movie's central ideas - the folly of trying to impose order on something as unruly as human emotion. The film plays on the irony of a woman regularly intervening in the lives of children despite having always been too career-focused to have children herself. There's a whiff of sexism to that notion, but Thompson is a shrewd enough actress to liberate Fiona from any second-rate psychology. Some of the movie's sharpest scenes unfold in her offices, where she snaps at her assistant and endures a colleague's annoying jokes. We register the stress that comes with processing human lives day in and day out, even as Fiona delivers judgments whose consequences she will almost certainly never see. It's a sobering reminder that behind every juicy courtroom drama, the wheels of a heavy bureaucratic machinery turn and turn. And sadly, the lives of our youngest and most vulnerable sometimes wind up getting caught in the gears.

BIANCULLI: Justin Chang is a film critic at the LA Times. On Monday's show, Neil deGrasse Tyson. His new book is about the unspoken alliance between astrophysics and the military. He says the Trump administration's plan to create a space force, taking over what the Air Force already is doing in space, isn't crazy. But he'd add a few other things.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: I'd throw in, hey, why don't you defend us against asteroid strikes? And how about cleaning up the space garbage?

BIANCULLI: Hope you can join us. FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer is Sam Briger. Our engineer today is Adam Staniszewski with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.


Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.