The Children Act

Movie review by
Michael Ordona, Common Sense Media
The Children Act Movie Poster Image
Adult themes, great lead performance in legal/moral drama.
  • R
  • 2018
  • 105 minutes

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Mixed/uneven messages. The depiction of a judge as an intelligent, compassionate professional seems to be an endorsement of a humanistic legal system. But on the other hand, one character's sudden intellectual freedom seems to be a good thing but turns out not to be.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Main character is a highly intelligent, compassionate, professional judge. She soldiers on, trying to do the right thing per the strictures of the law even while undergoing personal challenges. But every other speaking character has many flaws.

Violence

A severely ill young man is a main part of the plot.

Sex

An affair is discussed (not in detail) but not shown. A couple's earlier, more active sexual relationship is also mentioned, also not in detail and also not shown. A young man seeks a relationship with an older woman that would be inappropriate due to circumstance; nothing shown beyond a brief kiss.

Language

Very infrequent but includes a use of "f--ked."

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Adults sip drinks at receptions and dinner parties.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that The Children Act is a drama involving law and morality. A British family court judge (Emma Thompson), whose marriage to an academic (Stanley Tucci) is suddenly in trouble, rules that the state can intervene in the case of a young man with leukemia (Fionn Whitehead of Dunkirk) who's refusing medical treatment for religious reasons. While the movie's content is mild overall, there's some mature discussion of an extramarital affair and a past sexual relationship, as well as a failed attempt by a young man to start an inappropriate relationship with a woman. Expect a bit of social drinking at receptions and dinner parties and other adult themes. Language is extremely infrequent but does include a use of "f--ked." The film is based on the novel by Ian McEwan.

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What's the story?

In THE CHILDREN ACT, English family court judge Fiona Maye (Emma Thompson) -- a highly intelligent and compassionate professional whose rulings sometimes have lasting social impact -- suddenly finds her marriage to American academic Jack Maye (Stanley Tucci) in serious trouble. Then she must rule on a religious-freedom case in which a Jehovah's Witness family wants to decline potentially life-saving treatment for their nearly 18-year-old son, Adam (Fionn Whitehead). Fiona's ruling saves the teen's life, and he develops a strong (and inappropriate) attachment to her.

Is it any good?

This drama offers another sterling performance by one of the screen's greatest actresses, but Thompson far outshines an uneven and ultimately uninvolving film. The Children Act touches on some interesting points: the tension between religious freedom and the state's responsibilities, the unshackling of a young mind, the struggle of a woman at a personal crossroads to balance multiple pulls, and an adult examination of a marriage in crisis. Unfortunately, none of these topics is plumbed in depth. The marital crisis, largely on the strength of Thompson and Tucci's performances, ends up being more resonant than the main thread of how Fiona handles Adam's attentions. Richard Eyre, who's made outstanding films like Iris and Notes on a Scandal, here fails to engage us. And writer Ian McEwan's adaptation of his own novel blows past major beats. Those factors, along with Whitehead's single-note performance, keep the crucially important Adam at arm's length from viewers. From the start, he seems perhaps deranged; there aren't enough levels in his portrayal, background, or journey to convince us otherwise. Thus, his final decisions seem to come from nowhere. That's a fatal flaw, as the film's dramatic success depends heavily on his development.

Thompson, on the other hand, delivers. The actress' intelligence shines through. There's never a doubt that she's seeking and absorbing all the needed information, that she's receiving it all and that it's affecting her. Her Fiona is a model of public restraint with an emotionally intense private life. Thompson is present in every moment, prodding, reacting. And her chemistry with Tucci is excellent. It would be a pleasure to see them paired in another film, presumably one more memorable than The Children Act.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the conflict between religion and the law. This is a serious and complex question that courts have long wrangled over, particularly in the United States. Do you agree with Fiona's ruling? Why or why not?

  • Which characters, if any, do you consider role models in The Children Act? Why? Do you think they exemplified any character strengths?

  • Do you think Fiona or Jack was more right in their marital dispute? Did you have sympathy for both sides, or was one clearly wrong in your view? Or perhaps both -- or neither?

Movie details

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