The problem you encounter casting Stanley Tucci in literally any role is that he’s too preternaturally charming. You have to work against the unstoppable force of nature that he represents for us to do anything but love him. The Children Act unfortunately, is nothing but blandly directed and has to struggle against Ian McEwan’s second script this year imperfectly adapted from his own novel.
Thus: when in an early scene the man announces that he is going to embark on an affair, and he is notifying his wife out of common courtesy. I think, ‘Wow, how reasonable. What a decent man.’ Emma Thompson as his wife is understandably horrified, yet the movie encourages us in these early scenes to empathise with her reserve, her dispassion, all those qualities that make her a good judge.
We open on her deliberating on the case of conjoined twins, separating them will cause one of the two to die, leave them be and both will most likely perish. She sides with the hospital, viability in this case takes president. The rest of the film revolves around a case of a child with leukaemia refusing blood transfer for religious reasons, though the case finished disconcertingly early in the runtime and an ethical conundrum turns into a far less interesting observation of its fallout.
Which kinda sucks, I could literally watch Thompson doing her steely judge act forever, there’s a montage early on in here that features her giving a number of withering remarks from the bench and it truly gives me life. Yet she is never allowed to let the demeanour drop. We are expected to believe that she is so shaken by her husband’s infidelity that she breaks protocol to interview the child litigant in her case. That she is so shaken by this encounter that it triggers long lasting repercussions for her.
We are never allowed to see this. At least, not until a contrived ending that finally allows us to see the leads exhibit their range. The whole layout of the story feels sloppy. It’s never straying beyond the bounds of probability, yet everything somehow seems forced. People go and do and be places without the interrogation of their personal lives that would encourage us to understand why.
Their luxuriant apartment is furnished gorgeously with the requisite amount of workplace clutter to ensure that you know they’re serious about their jobs. I don’t remember having seen a television in their living room. I assume Tucci’s character spends his free time in the guest bedroom because that’s where he seems to always emerge from when necessary. There’s nothing here that feels lived in.
None more so than the religion of the characters that the film actually concerns. Like, you can have your opinions on the strictures of those more elite Christian sects, I sure do. But this joint never gives them a moment, the only time that is spent within the religious community is a brief as you know about the scriptural reasons why Jehovah’s Witnesses do not allow blood transfusions. We listen to their arguments and get to marvel at their conviction – yet it is defined as completely antithetical to their humanity.
The film revolves around court case to determine the legal validity of upholding religious belief, yet we never interrogate those for whom it is sincerely held. Even when the case closes and the plot starts to tend to the melodramatic, stalking and crises of faith and whatnot we never are allowed to grasp the fundamental underpinning of faith that causes it all to be.
Fionn Whitehead does a good job, but never overcomes the pale angelic pallor with which he is painted in his early scenes. Throughout he remains too soft, a fleshy human reaction to the cold dispassion of the law. Yet humanity isn’t like this, it can be wild and unpredictable, we see none of that here. Just a wet boy standing in the rain complaining about how this have been quite so unfair.
Is it too much to ask our drama for revelations? At the end the characters break down crying, sure of the tragedy that they have witnessed, certain that it is going to change them for the better. I would like to know what these revelations were ideally. The film is too withholding to allow us to glimpse any internality, and all of the external problems are laid out from the start. It’s well performed enough, one just never really gets the feeling of having been transported.
The Children Act is currently screening in UK cinemas.