Adapted from a Booker Prize-winning novel, The Children Act is certainly layered with meaning and importance. It’s clear from how the cast are acting really hard at all times and all the pregnant silences that what we are watching is supposed to be taken deeply, deeply seriously. Unfortunately all of the self-importance and stuffy dourness led to a film that feels dramatically inert. It’s about big ideas, yet is never remotely involving. That’s not good.
Emma Thompson stars (and is good, so there’s that) as a British High Court judge tasked with determining whether or not a teen boy (Fionn Whitehead) who is refusing a blood transfusion due to his faith should be forced to receive life-saving treatment by the government. Thompson’s marriage to a typically delightful Stanley Tucci is also collapsing at the same time. So while the noble woman is determining the value of life in the eyes of the law, she’s also coming to terms with the fact that she’s essentially stopped living in pursuit of her career. Of course, this all springs from the particularly British brand of repressed emotions. So these things are rarely spoken aloud. Instead they occur in long, sad gazes off screen designed for audiences to project everything (and nothing) upon.
The Children Act is certainly a fine example of British stuffiness masquerading as drama. Thompson is rather gifted at portraying that sort of thing (even though she seems about as far away from repressed as possible), so she’s always a pleasure to watch. Unfortunately, the film itself doesn’t quite live up to the performances. It touches on big ideas without really engaging in them, eventually succumbing to easy weepy melodrama in a way that robs the film of the naturalism it needs to succeed. Presumably the book allowed for so much more to be said between the lines than what fumbles onto the screen here. Oh well. That book still exists and it’s possible to pretend this movie doesn’t. So that’s a plus.