The Children Act (12A)
The penultimate scene of this moving (if occasionally sugar-coated) study of lives lived to the full, lives thrown away and those gone stale, is heavily reminiscent of the last one in John Huston’s magisterial The Dead. In that film, Gabriel Conroy (Donal McCann) has to listen to his wife Gretta (Anjelica Huston) telling him that her feelings for him can’t compare to those she had for a man called Michael Furey who died of consumption.
In Richard Eyre’s The Children Act, High Court judge Fiona Maye (Emma Thompson) says something similar to her husband Jack (Stanley Tucci) when the life of a young man called Adam (Fionn Whitehead) is threatened by leukaemia. If I classify it as coming across as second best in the comparison it’s no great shame. I regard The Dead as Huston’s masterpiece on screen just as I regard it as James Joyce’s on the page.
Another Irish writer, W.B. Yeats, figures in an earlier scene when Maye visits Adam in hospital after he’s refused a blood transfusion that could save his life. His reason for doing so is that he’s a Jehovah’s Witness and regards this as an unwanted intrusion on nature. It’s up to Maye to decide whether the hospital should have a legal right to transfuse the boy, who’s just under 18.
She visits him because she wants to find out if he has a will to live. She finds out he has when he starts strumming the melody to Yeats’ ‘Down By the Salley Gardens’ and she sings along in accompaniment.
Jehovah’s Witnesses won’t like the film. There’s a strong impression given that Adam has been brainwashed by his controlling parents and that once he escapes from their restrictive mindset he’ll be able to embrace his passion for music and poetry prohibited by their evangelical zeal.
I won’t reveal what happens. Suffice to say that Adam awakens the maternal instincts of Maye, who’s childless, and gives her feelings she’s half afraid of in a workaholic life that has seen her push such feelings into the background.
She’s also done this to Jack, who has an affair with a younger woman as a result. Can the marriage be saved? Will Adam become a kind of surrogate son to them?
In a Richard Curtis film he would. Here the Curtis element – for which read schmaltz, fuzzy feelgood factors and possibly a climactic dash to somewhere like an airport – is thankfully kept to a minimum. (Having said that, we do get a climactic dash to a hospital.)
The basic problem with the film is its central conceit. We’re asked to believe a suicidal man would decide life is worth living after all because a woman he’s never seen before knows the words to a song. This is ridiculous – but the performances are so good you almost buy it.
If it wasn’t for the Joycean derivativeness I’d probably have given it four stars.