Sydney Film Festival Review: The Children Act (USA, 2018) is a slow-burning & challenging moral drama

The Children Act is a drama that is wrapped around a moral quandary. It asks the question, “How old should someone be before they can refuse medical treatment?” This adaptation of an Ian McEwan novel is an emotive legal and moral drama that will give audiences pause to think.

This film is directed by Richard Eyre (Iris) and stars Emma Thompson in her meatiest role in years. Here she plays Fiona Maye, an eminent high court judge who presides over ethically complex cases of family law. At the beginning of the film she is forced to make a decision about whether a pair of conjoined twins should be separated. They will die without medical intervention but in separating them, one of the babies will succumb. This is challenging stuff but she deals with her cases swiftly and gives the impression that she has things very much together.

But Maye’s 20-year marriage to an American professor, Jack (Stanley Tucci) is unravelling. The couple are childless because she was too busy with her career and now Jack has decided that he wants to have an affair. Maye decides to kick him out of their apartment rather than discuss this. And it is at this point that Maye is faced with one of her most challenging cases to date.

Adam (Fionn Whitehead (Dunkirk)) is a 17-year old who is three months shy of his 18th birthday. He has leukaemia and his family are devout Jehovah’s Witnesses. He is refusing to have a blood transfusion on religious grounds even though this treatment could save his life. Justice Maye takes the unorthodox step of visiting the boy in hospital and what she discovers is a clever and curious child. The pair hit it off during that one encounter and Maye rules in favour of medical intervention.

Eventually Adam goes into remission. His relationship with his parents frays because he blames them for allowing their only son to sign a death pact. He also becomes obsessed with Maye. These characters are forced along a tricky tightrope of emotions and the result is a stark and slow-burning but very watchable drama.

The Children Act is like McEwan’s other novels in that it explores a complex and controversial topic and examines the human psychology around it. There is a lot of nuance in this film and the questions about the morality and ethics will get audiences talking about this long after the credits roll. The Children Act is ultimately a tragic tale where the scales of justice are challenged and compromised.


The Children Act screened as part of the Sydney Film Festival. For more details head HERE.


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