It has been a full decade since the last adaptation of an Ian McEwan novel — 2007’s World War II saga Atonement, which scored seven Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. Several upcoming versions of McEwan’s works are now in post-production, but the first one out of the gate is The Children Act, based on his riveting 2014 novel, which has been directed by Richard Eyre (Notes on a Scandal) from a screenplay written by the author himself.
EW is exclusively debuting the first two images from The Children Act, each featuring one of the film’s remarkable lead performers. Emma Thompson (pictured below) stars as Fiona Maye, a High Court judge in Great Britain’s Family Court of Law, who is tasked with deciding the fate of a leukemia-stricken 17-year-old boy, whose religious faith prevents him from accepting a life-saving blood transfusion. The boy, named Adam, is played by Dunkirk star Fionn Whitehead, in his first role since his big screen debut in the Christopher Nolan war epic. The plot of the film focuses on the relationship between these two characters, both intellectually curious and stubborn in their own ways, as they forge a unique friendship while Fiona is rendering her decision. (Stanley Tucci also appears in a crucial supporting part as Fiona’s estranged husband.)
“It’s such an extraordinary story,” Thompson tells EW. “And the greatest glory of this particular job for me has been meeting judges, specifically female judges of the Family Court. When I came to know these female judges and spent time watching them and shadowing them, I began to get a sense of the enormity of their task. And how incredible they are. It really is the cold face of justice because they’re dealing with real people. The fact is that Family Courts deal with domestic crises — and at the center of those crises is often a child.”
Producer Duncan Kenworthy (Love Actually) says that the movie would simply not have gone forward without Thompson’s participation. “She’s in every scene and is absolutely amazing,” he says. “I’ve worked with Emma before, so I know just how heart-stoppingly good she is at hiding deep emotion and then suddenly and unexpectedly revealing it. And in this film that internal balancing act is crucial to portraying a judge who has to manage personal betrayal at home while dealing dispassionately with the life-or-death issue before her in court.”
Whitehead shares his admiration for Thompson. “She’s a lovely human being and a safe pair of hands,” he tells EW. “I felt so comfortable around her and we got along like a house on fire. Both the book and the film are at the most basic level about human connection. That was the easiest thing to do with Emma because she’s so giving and open.”
Whitehead also has a little slice of trivia in common with McEwan. Namely, Dunkirk. One of the most stirring passages in McEwan’s novel Atonement describes the famous evacuation of the beach in 1940, later filmed in a stunning five-minute single-take shot by Joe Wright in the film version. “[McEwan] and I never actually got a chance to talk about that,” Whitehead says with a laugh. “But, oh, man, I love that shot in Atonement. It’s so amazing.”
As of 2017, Thompson is still the only person in the world to have won Oscars for both acting (1992’s Howards End) and screenwriting (1995’s Sense and Sensibility). Did those twin disciplines provide the actress any greater insight into playing a judge? “Absolutely, they mirror the twin disciplines of writing legal decisions and presenting them in court,” Thompson says. “But as an actor or writer, I’m never the living incarnation of justice. That’s a much heavier burden, let’s be real. Judges are literally there to preserve the sanctity of the law. And whilst I have many arguments with the law, I have also visited places where there is no rule of law. And in those places life is very different.”
Thompson adds that one aspect of judicial formality did remind her of a movie premiere: “It was most interesting being in the courts and seeing that there are these red carpets everywhere. Only judges can walk on the red carpets. It’s very arcane and faintly ridiculous, to be honest, but also you understand the status of a judge. They are celebrities.”
In this photo of Whitehead as Adam, you’ll notice that he’s standing in what looks like an opulent museum. That’s actually the Royal Courts of Justice, a building first opened by Queen Victoria in 1882.
Britain’s security agency MI5 has refused permission for any non-legal activity inside the building for years, citing terrorist concerns. “But then last year,” Kenworthy says, “thanks to Ian McEwan’s name and the huge reputation and charm of Sir Alan Ward, a retired Appeal Court judge who is a close friend of Ian’s and was a consultant to our film, Richard Eyre and I were brought in front of the Lord Chief Justice. And having put our case to him, he instantly said yes to letting us film a scene with Fionn Whitehead in the Great Hall. We were only allowed to have Fionn, plus a steadicam operator and one or two background artists, with Richard Eyre directing and me wielding the clapperboard. But the shots we got were critical for our story, and add priceless production value to the film.”
Whitehead adds, “I remember the day we shot inside there vividly. It was me and only one or two others allowed in, everyone else in the crew had to wait on the other side of the security scanners. It was quite funny actually. But it’s such an awe-inspiring building and the architecture is unbelievable. It’s one of those rare buildings that you don’t often see anymore.”
The same could be said for the quiet-key, touching drama at the heart of The Children Act. The movie makes its world premiere next month at the Toronto International Film Festival. A theatrical release date — hopefully this fall — should be expected soon.