Review

Film review: The Children Act

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‘I loved the quiet and careful cameos by those unseen people who make our legal system work’, says barrister and writer Sarah Langford

Image credit: The Children Act

It is only fair to disclose at the outset that I would happily pay money to watch Emma Thompson do the weekly shop. I should also say that Ian McEwan — who wrote the screenplay for this adaptation of his 2014 novel, The Children Act — is a writer whose sentences I find so perfect, I catch myself re-reading them many times over. Throw in Stanley Tucci, the brilliant new talent of Fionn Whitehead, and Ben Chaplain in his legal hat-trick (after BBC’s Apple Tree Yard and Nina Raine’s stage play, Consent) and my expectations were pretty high.

The Children Act does not disappoint. The protagonist — Fiona Maye — is a High Court judge in the Family Division who we meet at the beginning of a personal and professional crisis. She is in a sexless marriage with a man who loves her deeply, but from whom she has become disconnected. It is her dedication to the law that gets the blame. An emergency case comes before her. A hospital want to administer a blood transfusion to Adam — a 17-year-old, months away from legal autonomy — against his and his parent’s wishes. They, like he, are Jehovah’s Witnesses. His treating oncologist is clear: without a transfusion not only is he likely to die, but it will be a horrible, painful death. However we are also told that such a procedure would not only mean the damnation of his soul, but the rejection of Adam from his church, his family, his stability and his life.

Such cases are our judge’s bread and butter. She is required daily to focus her energies on a conveyer belt of cases so difficult that they fill newspaper headlines with the anguish of those involved. Her role, of course, is to preside over this raw emotion with cool calmness, and to attempt to apply the black and white of the law to the shades of grey before her. And that, in essence, is one of the many themes which run throughout this film. The law requires detached and cool objectivity, but it also requires humanity. When we walk into court we do so as an instrument of the system and, if we are lawyers, of our client. But underneath the costume we are, of course, human, fallible and able to be touched. The difficult art is finding this balance.

There is a scene in which Fiona Maye’s friend and colleague (he appears before her the following day on behalf of the hospital) cries defeat. He is worn out by the hopelessness of it all. The scene comes after a conversation with her husband during which Judge Maye begins to wonder whether her job may have cost her her marriage, not just because she is too busy, but because she has become emotionally detached. Listening to her friend’s outburst, we see Thompson mutely register her reaction on the edges of her face, then we see her push it aside and turn away, closing the conversation down. She cannot allow the edifice to crumble. To do so would mean she would be unable to do her job. But the next day she meets Adam and — with her personal world at sea and looking for answers as to why — she allows him in; she allows herself to be changed by him, almost as much as her eventual decision changes him.

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I read McEwan’s novel when it was first published in the twilight hours of night-time new-born feeds. I was troubled by some of the plot twists, which it seems have also troubled reviewers of this film. For me, however, the screen has flattened some of these problems out. The kiss in the rain had seemed odd, as though this writer — who so often requires an undertone of sexual darkness in his work — just couldn’t help himself. Now, though, in the hands of Thompson and Whitehead, I saw another version. Through saving his life, Adam feels an intimacy with the judge that he struggles to identify. He is trying to find a way to connect to her; to make her see how she has liberated him. He is also simultaneously trying to understand why, seeing his parents tears of joy when his transfusion took place which proved their love for him, they were prepared to let him die for their church. He says to her at one point, “I am not the person I was”. She has changed him. And that is why, as a lawyer, the themes of this film are so interesting. We sail into people’s lives at crisis point, perform our professional duty, and then sail off and onto the next. Often we do not find out what happens afterwards. Our client’s lives are changed forever. But sometimes, if we let them in, so are ours.

This idea is made all the more interesting by knowing some of the detail as to how McEwan came to write the book. For those who think the idea that Judge Maye would dash off to Adam’s hospital bedside before making her decision was ridiculous, they should know that the retired court of appeal judge, Alan Ward — a friend of McEwan’s — did exactly this. In 1993, Sir Alan visited a teenage boy in the middle of a case who was, like the film’s Adam, diagnosed with aggressive leukaemia but was refusing a transfusion because his parents were Jehovah’s Witnesses (Re E (A minor) (Wardship: Medical Treatment) [1993]). Sir Alan spoke to the boy of his life, his love of football; to get, one supposes, a sense of the person whose life he was about to change — before ruling that the transfusion should take place. When the boy was well again, Sir Alan arranged for him to meet some star players of his favourite football team and watch a match from the director’s box. He told the Telegraph in a recent interview, “The light of life shone in his eyes”. Twenty years later, as he was serving as a court of appeal judge, the news reached Sir Alan that the boy, now in adulthood, had relapsed. He had refused a further transfusion. It cost him his life. It was apparently the depth with which Sir Alan felt this death that inspired McEwan to write his book.

I confess I’m not one of those barristers who avoids legal dramas for fear that the wrong book, gown or — god forbid — a gavel finds its way erroneously onto set. I love them. And in this film, I loved watching a world with which I am so familiar through the fresh prism of a stranger’s eye. I loved the quiet and careful cameos by those unseen people who make our legal system work — the hugely professional but deeply caring judge’s clerk, the smoking porter moved at hearing the judge sing. I loved being reminded how beautiful the Inns of Court are, and how strange the costumes, language and rituals seem to those who do not practise them daily. I don’t think it’s smugness on my part that I know this world so well. I think, in fact, that it reminds me how lucky I am to know it at all. For although Thompson is the star of this show, the legal system is her understudy. It is a reminder to all that underneath the costumes are people who care about those whose lives they impact. In a time when public sympathy and understanding has to be won in order to save the further destruction of legal aid, this is no bad thing.

Sarah Langford is a criminal and family law barrister and writer. Her new book, In Your Defence: Stories of Life and Law, is available to purchase now.

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