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Review: An excellent Emma Thompson raises the bar in 'The Children Act'

Review: An excellent Emma Thompson raises the bar in 'The Children Act'
Emma Thompson and Stanley Tucci in the movie "The Children Act." (A24)

Early on in “The Children Act,” a distinguished British judge named Fiona Maye (Emma Thompson) learns that her husband, Jack (Stanley Tucci), is planning to have an affair with one of his colleagues — “planning to” being the operative words.

He loves her, he insists, and has no intention of ending their long, mostly happy but sexually unfulfilling marriage. He figures that Fiona, with her professional obligation to remain fair-minded in even the most emotionally fraught situations, would at least appreciate his honesty about his intentions and frustrations.

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Needless to say, Jack figures wrong. One of the lessons of “The Children Act,” crisply directed by Richard Eyre (“Notes on a Scandal”) and adapted by Ian McEwan from his own 2014 novel, is that the world can impose only so much order on something as unruly as human desire. Fiona, the gratifying focus of the story, will learn this firsthand, as she deals with not only the fallout from Jack’s startling announcement — a subplot that plays out a bit too schematically in the background — but also the toughest, most personally affecting case of her career.

The title of both book and movie refers to a 1989 piece of legislation that requires authorities in Britain to promote the welfare of minors first and foremost. Determining a child’s best interest, of course, is never as clear-cut as it seems, and Fiona understands this better than most. Her every moment is consumed with custody battles, medical dilemmas and other quandaries that threaten to tear families apart, and she brings to each ruling a lifetime’s worth of clear-eyed discernment.

The novel brought the reader deeply into the intricacies of that discernment, especially with regard to a recent case involving a pair of conjoined twins and the decision to separate them. McEwan laid out the arguments with its own surgical precision: Would it be lawful for the state to demand an operation that would save one boy but end his brother’s life? And what of the twins’ Catholic parents, who want to leave the painful matter in God’s hands, even if it means losing both their children? The book made a persuasive case for every possible side before allowing Fiona to render her judgment with Solomon-like authority.

Even with McEwan writing the screenplay himself, the movie doesn’t have nearly as much time to delve into the legal, ethical and intellectual nuances of her process. Like a few other films based on McEwan’s work — “Atonement” and the recent “On Chesil Beach,” among them — “The Children Act” evinces measured intelligence and polished craftsmanship without ever quite shaking off the feel of a work filtered through its non-native medium.

Still, it’s always rewarding to watch Thompson bring her lucid wit and deep emotional reserves to bear on a meaty role. As Fiona, she shapes a credible, fascinating portrait of a woman who is wedded to her work and assured in her judiciary expertise. Some of the movie’s sharpest scenes unfold in Fiona’s offices, where she snaps at her loyal assistant (a fine Jason Watkins) and endures a colleague’s annoying jokes. We register the stress that comes with processing human lives day in and day out, even as Fiona is largely insulated from the consequences.

But suddenly, like many a McEwan protagonist before her, she isn’t. The case in question involves a 17-year-old leukemia patient named Adam Henry (Fionn Whitehead, “Dunkirk”), whose successful treatment and survival will depend on a blood transfusion. But Adam, like his parents (poignantly played by Ben Chaplin and Eileen Walsh), is a Jehovah’s Witness, and he has refused the transfusion based on his belief that God forbids the intermixing of blood. McEwan, engineering his premise with enormous cunning, throws in one more twist: Because Adam is still just a few months shy of adulthood, it falls to Fiona to decide his fate.

She responds with the highly unusual step of visiting Adam in the hospital, so as to determine whether he fully understands the consequences of his inaction. Whether a judge would actually do such a thing raises some plausibility issues, though the movie itself seems aware of them: Adam is startled and captivated by the sight of Fiona suddenly appearing at his bedside. He’s a highly intelligent teenager, irreverent yet serious-minded, with a deep love of reading and writing poetry. Their visit ends in charmingly preposterous fashion, with Adam playing an old Irish folk song on his guitar while Fiona, herself a talented musician, sings along.

The prevalence of music in “The Children Act,” which is scored by Stephen Warbeck and punctuated by the occasional on-screen performance, is no accident. Music, after all, is a form predicated on an ideal balance of technique and feeling, and Fiona’s legal judgment works toward a similar aim. Watching the movie, however, you can’t help but feel that technique wins out by a decisive margin. At times a strong pocket of emotion will come to the fore, but you never quite forget the busy narrative and thematic machinery churning away beneath the surface.

It would be unfair to disclose Fiona’s ultimate judgment, or the intriguing, creepy, not entirely persuasive direction in which it takes the story. But as the surprising consequences of her decision take root, she is reminded that when it comes to something as essential as a child’s well-being, no jurist, not even one of her stature, can be quite as dispassionate as she pretends.

She is also forced to recognize that hers is not, in the end, the only judgment that matters. Adam’s parents have their own complicated thoughts and wishes with regard to their son’s faith and future, but they seem well aware of the fact that Adam has a will of his own and every intention of exercising it. The Children Act? Of course. When have they ever not?

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‘The Children Act’

Rating: R, for a sexual reference

Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes

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Playing: Laemmle’s Playhouse 7, Pasadena; Laemmle’s Royal Theatre, West Los Angeles; Laemmle’s Town Center 5, Encino

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