Acting saves poor writing

Emma Thompson and Stanley Tucci in The Children Act.
Emma Thompson and Stanley Tucci in The Children Act.PHOTO: SHAW ORGANISATION



106 minutes/Now showing /2.5 stars

The story: Fiona Maye (Emma Thompson) is a workaholic High Court judge who often oversees difficult family cases. They involve the rights of the individual versus the state or of one member of a family against another. She is called in to decide on the matter of a teenager, Adam (Fionn Whitehead), whose leukaemia treatment has been halted because his family's Jehovah's Witnesses faith forbids him from receiving a blood transfusion. Meanwhile, her husband Jack (Stanley Tucci) feels neglected and tells her he will start an affair. Based on the 2014 novel of the same name by Ian McEwan, who also wrote the screenplay.

It is said that one should never adapt one's own book into a screenplay because novelists are too emotionally close to the text. Their blind spots will be the script's undoing.

This aimless but beautifully acted drama proves the saying right. McEwan's adaptation of his own novel swings from frustratingly opaque one minute to unashamedly sentimental the next.

There are two separate, but interwoven threads at work. One has to do with a case of an almost-adult teen, Adam (Whitehead), and his complicated relationship with Fiona (Thompson) in the aftermath of her ruling on his leukaemia treatment. The other has to do with her marriage to Jack (Tucci), which has settled into a sexless, sibling-like arrangement because of her preoccupation with work.

Neither thread really works, but the Adam arc blends melodrama, suspense and legal thriller elements haphazardly, making it the less satisfying of the two. There are hints of something deeper and psychosexual here, but neither McEwan nor director Richard Eyre (Notes On A Scandal, 2006; Iris, 2001) seem willing to go down that alley.

Fiona's conduct on the home front with Jack is just as unfathomable. There are good dramas about very English, very civilised couples who tell each other about their plans to have an affair as if discussing cricket scores, but there is a way to handle the scenes without them looking like a parody of upper-class reserve.

This study of a smart woman slowly coming apart when she finds that using her intelligence as a weapon has its limits is very well served by Thompson's phenomenal presence. She elevates the weak screenplay, which might have been improved by removing the original writer from its creation.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 20, 2018, with the headline 'Acting saves poor writing'. Print Edition | Subscribe