London judge Fiona Maye (Emma Thompson) isn’t a god, but she plays one in a way in court. Her decisions in high-profile cases — the separation of conjoined twins, the parental rights of a Muslim father — give her that kind of power, and she wields it with the same coolly assured certainty with which she handles her marriage to American academic Jack (Stanley Tucci).
As the movie opens though, Jack is getting tired of being handled. He wants companionship: wine and movie nights and doubles tennis on a weekend. Deep in her work, Fiona hardly hears him, and hardly worries; until he asks, out of anger and desperation, for permission to have an affair. Inconveniently, that’s also the day a case drops into her lap involving Adam (Dunkirk’s Fionn Whitehead), a 17-year-old Jehovah’s Witness with leukemia whose religious beliefs — or more likely his devout parents’ — forbid the blood transfusions that could save his life.
Adapted by Ian McEwan from his own 2014 novel, The Children Act is elegantly directed by Richard Eyre (Iris, Notes on a Scandal). And it’s hard to imagine an actress more fitting than Thompson (Kristin Scott Thomas maybe?) to play a woman like Fiona, with her nonsense-free beauty, luxuriously spare wardrobe, and serene, supreme capability.
But as her character points out from the bench early on, legal and moral rightness are not interchangeable; when Adam becomes unduly attached to her after a bedside visit, Fiona faces a quandary from both sides. Is his fascination with her dangerous and delusional, or simply the natural reaction of sheltered young man whose world has suddenly been cracked open?
The pale, sharp-featured Whitehead brings an appropriately feverish intensity to Adam, who looks less like a typical 21st-century teenager than Lord Byron with a backpack. (Tucci’s hurt and anger is perfectly calibrated, too, and Jason Watkins is great as a long-suffering law clerk). But even the cast’s uniform excellence can’t quite crack Children’s outer carapace, or bring full life to Fiona’s emotional struggle as she’s forced to confront her own failings. Instead the story drifts iceberg-like toward its carefully muted conclusion, only a small part of its true scope visible above a beautiful, chilly surface. B
The Children Act is available now on DirecTV ahead its theatrical release on Sept. 14.