EMMA THOMPSON’S FIONA May is Oscar worthy brilliant in this thought provoking if overly literary tale. She is an imperious, dedicated, workaholic senior magistrate, with little time for her patient, long suffering husband. And, critically, little time for sex. Her one indulgence is the piano. There, she can crack open the door to what little passion still animates her law constrained soul. Jack, her husband (Stanley Tucci, in the thankless role of man as wimp) clearly thinks the world of her, as he constantly reminds her. But, as he also reminds her, eleven months of sexual abstinence is, love notwithstanding, just too much to bear.
And he’s a good looking man with someone literally waiting in the wings; no need to hunt for the release he so needs. But he’s also an honest upfront man who feels it his moral duty to warn her of his temptations.
She’s unmoved by his “plight”. An affair, to her, would mean the end of the relationship; or as Jack notes: “You won’t have sex with me and you won’t tolerate me having sex with anyone else”
Here’s a marriage without a spark…a bloodless marriage where love and fidelity is expected to substitute for passion. It’s not so much a loveless marriage as a sexless one. Marriage without sex. What’s the point really?
The symbolism of blood as life and vitality is played out in a judgment she must rule on. A young man (Fionn Whitehead from Dunkirk) is dying and in need of a transfusion. But his express wish, in keeping with his (or at least his parents’) religion, forbids it. She – or the law- must choose between the gift of blood and life or fidelity to faith (They’re Jehovah Witnesses) and certain death.
Adam – the young man- is seventeen and thus, still legally a minor. And the eponymous Children Act makes the decision clear: the State must protect the life of a minor. But, in an unexpected twist, and against what would be her better judgment, she visits the sick boy in his hospice bed. Between them – this seventeen year old boy and this fifty plus year old woman – a spark is ignited.
Perhaps he is a reminder of the child she never had; or a living proof of the meaningfulness of her profession. Or, symbolically, of the human need for feeling to give life to…life.
Thompson’s tremendous portrayal of this deeply unsympathetic character fights against authorial intrusiveness to make her feel almost real. We become privy to the confusions that beset a life so well calibrated and controlled when unexpected emotion sneaks in.
Justice May is the central actor in the lives of three men: her husband, Adam, the young man and her assistant (Brilliant Nigel Pauling as a cringe-worthy servant). All three of these are subservient to her; supplicants to her –bloodless- God-like approbation. Even as Adam becomes more and more obsessed with her (She saved his life after all), she seems blissfully unaware – or indifferent – of her influence on “her men”.
It’s all too messy. For her, the dispassionate law is a much more controllable environment.
The problem with the story is that its narrative arc is too mannered…feels very self consciously literary. It unfolds via a series of contrived parallels and contrasts:
Justice May’s unexpected passion for the boy is balanced by and contrasted with her husband’s very expected passion for another woman. Her’s is maternal and asexual. His is less so.
Her judicial eloquence is paralleled by her interpersonal muteness.
Her self-protective armory of the gown, her robes, her carefully coiffured grooming comes apart symbolically in a night of drenching rain and emotional collapse.
The literary conceit of the blood as literal (Jehovah Witness) carrier of the soul v blood as emotional carrier of passion is clever but pat.
In the end, the story’s thematic meditation on the nature of relationships is often insightful, but marred by its contrived glibness. There’s a paint by numbers feel to the whole enterprise.
And despite Emma, her character feels more like a layering of attitudes in service to an idea, than a “flesh and blood” person. And, as my wife has pointed out to me, herein may lie the crux of the matter: it’s simply poor writing. It’s a question of and understanding of the dynamics of empathy. Justice May is deeply empathetic to the cases she supervises; she’s simply indifferent to the reality of the others around her. Has her judicial empathy exhausted her interpersonal empathy? Her lack of a sexual relationship with her long suffering husband is one of the core narrative pillars of the story. But there is no attempt to explore this vital dimension. Why has their sexual relationship collapsed?
Jack’s character is a mere passing anecdote. He supposedly represents the antithesis of her bloodlessness: a man of great love and enduring moral probity animated by necessary passion. But he’s a dull and boring character…a neutered man essentially as sexless as her. Perhaps the story would have been better told from his POV. Author Ian McEwan seems to understand men better than women
Or perhaps the big flaw in the production was simply to have the author (The story is from Ian McEwan’s book of the same name) adapt his own book. It’s a good story that needed reinterpretation for and not simply transliteration to the screen.
THE CHILDREN ACT. With: Emma Thompson, Stanley Tucci, Fionn Whitehead, Nigel Pauling. Dir: Richard Eyre (Notes on a Scandal). Writer: Ian McEwan. Cinematographer: Andrew Dunn (Bridget Jones’s Baby; The Lady in the Van)