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Non-Review Review: The Children Act

Perhaps the most striking thing about The Children Act is how it manages to combine so many stock prestige drama beats into such a chaotic cacophony.

The Children Act is a mess from beginning to end, all the more jarring for how familiar and how recognisable the constituent elements might be. The Children Act often feels like a fairly standard IKEA table where all of the pieces have been assembled to create something monstrous. Often during the runtime, the audience might spot a familiar beat or plot point, but often one deployed with little consideration for how these elements normally work or how they might better service this particular story.

Come what May.

The Children Act is a film that very clearly aspires towards a certain style of prestige cinema. It is directed by Richard Eyre, responsible for awards fare like Iris or Notes on a Scandal and even the recent highly successful BBC adaptation of King Lear. It is written by Ian McEwan, adapting his own novel, the writer perhaps still best know to movie-going audiences as the novelist who provided the source material for Atonement. It stars Emma Thompson and Stanley Tucci, two actors who are always highly engaging, and who should bounce off one another.

Unfortunately, almost nothing within the film actually works, with strange decisions contorting the narrative into strange shapes. The Children Act is a curiousity that is more intriguing than it is engaging, more compelling for how completely it refuses to work than for anything that it is actually trying to say.

Just this.

To be fair, a lot of the material within The Children Act is fairly familiar. It is a story about a judge who finds herself assigned a tough case. A young boy on the cusp of adulthood is dying, and the only thing that can save his life is a blood transfusion. However, the boy’s parents are Jehovah Witnesses. They are withholding consent to treat him, a decision that the boy has actively encouraged and embraced. It falls to the Honourable Justice Fiona May to make a ruling in this case.

This is the kind of stock legal drama that will be casually familiar to anybody who has ever even contemplated the existence of law as a force governing society. It is one of the earliest discussions in any legal course. It has been fodder for episodes of shows like Law and Order. Indeed, the release of The Children Act coincides with the debut of another film dealing with similar subject matter, Apostasy. (Consider it an esoteric example of the same “dueling movies” phenomenon that gave the world Deep Impact and Armageddon or The Prestige and The Illusionist.)

“I mean, you wait for one Jehovah Witness blood transfusion movie, and two come along at once.”

However, there’s one gaping issue with this moral dilemma. It has been done to death. Courts have already made rulings in cases like this. In fact, even within The Children Act, the child at the centre of the case observes that there is established legal precedent that should provide guidance to any judge navigating a case like this. The big central hook in The Children Act, the moral question that haunts the first half of the narrative, is not so much a hook as a clearly defined straight line. The problem is that The Children Act treats it as a massive revelation.

This happens repeatedly over the course of The Children Act, with McEwan’s script seizing upon self-evident concepts as if they are truly mind-blowing. At the heart of The Children Act are a number of ideas that are only shocking if the audience has never actually thought about concepts like the law and the functioning of democracy. The Children Act fixates particularly upon the idea that May is making emotional decisions rather than purely rational and objective ones.

Dialing it back.

This is the old chestnut of legal storytelling. What if the people who administer justice are actually people as well? What if an individual placed in a position of authority is being subtly influenced by the human factors in their own lives? What would the consequences of that be, particularly from the perspective of people who never appreciated the humanity or the agency of those charged with divining and articulating justice? These are all very broad questions, the kind that often inspire profound philosophical hand-wringing, but which ignore the reality of human existence.

To be fair, there are moments when The Children Act comes close to making this strange dichotomy of humanity and authority work. In particular, the film very cannily and very cleverly juxtaposes the public administration of justice with the mundane realities behind the scenes. May often scurries between court rooms through hidden corridors, that underscore the performative nature of her role in their resemblance to back-stage spaces. Similarly, much is made of the pseudo-religious rituals of these legal administrators, paralleling the religious debate at the heart of the story.

Final judgment.

A lot of these ideas are presented in very trite and condescending ways. There is a recurring emphasis on the idea that the humanity of the legal classes is concealed from the working classes, with repeated emphasis on less “important” characters hidden behind doorways or peering through gaps in order to catch a glimpse of humanity. A security guard eavesdrops on an impromptu emotional serenade; an assistant witnesses an unguarded moment; the child at the centre of the story wonders what faith May holds, though she declines to answer.

The Children Act repeatedly shies away from its bigger and bolder ideas, in particular the questions around religious belief and the worship of secular ideas of reason that exist outside a religious framework. Adam, the child at the centre of the legal drama in the film, seems desperate to transfer his religious faith from Jehovah to May, even repeatedly referring to her as “My Lady” after she corrects him. The Children Act broaches the idea of law as a religion several times, even during a short scene of a thematically-relevant lecture, but it never follows through on the promise.

What if Judge was one of us?

Unfortunately, for every half-formed idea that almost works, there are a few more that seem hackneyed and clichéd. The plot of The Children Act seems almost assembled from a prestige drama mad-lib. May’s position as a legal authority is juxtaposed with her lack of control within her marriage. In a scene that clearly (and ill-judgedly) tries to place a “quirky” spin on a familiar prestige drama beat, her husband blithely announces his intentions to have an affair before having an affair. It is all so arch and so stereotypically sophisticated.

None of this feels natural. It would be churlish to complain that none of the characters within The Children Act behave in a rational manner, as the film’s central point is that human beings are inherently irrational and how personal decisions can ripple out to have profound consequences, but none of the characters act in a manner that feels like a real person might behave in a given situation. Characters act in a manner that it might be “interesting” to have them act, or in a manner that prolongs the story.

A sorry state of affairs.

The irony in all of this is that none of the strange choices within The Children Act have particularly interesting outcomes, in large part because it often feels like The Children Act is just trying to find a familiar way to execute a hoary old trope. May’s marriage inevitably collapses under the strain of her husband’s affair, even if there was an interesting choice to have him announce the affair ahead of time. The Children Act often runs through a list of familiar narrative beats with a slight tonal shift, in a way that creates a discordant whole.

The Children Act features a variety of scenes from similar dramatic or romantic movies. At one point, right before a big important performance, a character receives a shocking (and completely left-field) piece of bad news. However, that character inevitably (and heroically) decides to deliver the performance anyway; there is even a nice (and entirely predictable) shift from the established playbill to accommodate the latest tragic news. At another point, there’s an extremely grim twist on the obligatory “last minute dash to the departure lounge” expected in romances.

First rule of marriage: you can lookie, but you can’t Tuccc.

This insistence on playing to cliché and familiarity in a slightly unconventional manner is incredibly frustrating. In theory, The Children Act is a straight line that covers well-worn ground that might possibly yield some compelling drama for Thompson and Tucci. Instead, the film is zigging and zagging all over the place to ensure that it makes the most esoteric journey to the most obviosu of locations.

The Children Act is a frustrating mess, and often feels like the result of bad judgment.

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