Ian McEwan

The Children Act

10/09/18

Oh dear. I’m a little bit annoyed with The Children Act. Which is clearly not an ideal response. I can’t deny it looks good, and Emma Thompson’s star shines as brightly as it ever did (she’s magnificent, really; I am a true fan of her work). The supporting cast are pretty marvellous too. And yet… and yet.

My issues are all with the story, adapted for the screen by Ian McEwan from his 2014 novel. Thompson plays Fiona Maye, a high court judge who earns her daily crust making life and death decisions: is it right to sacrifice a conjoined baby to give his twin a better chance of survival? Even if his parents don’t agree? There are no easy answers to the dilemmas she faces, but she is a consummate professional, dedicated and compassionate,  focused and fair-minded.

And then, one explosive weekend, her husband, Jack (Stanley Tucci), reveals that he’s unhappy with the way she’s been neglecting their marriage and tells her he wants to have an affair. Reeling, Fiona answers her phone as Jack’s packing his suitcase, and picks up an urgent case. A Jehovah’s Witness teenager is refusing a blood transfusion; his doctors want to force life-saving treatment on the boy. This should be run-of-the-mill for Fiona, but she’s out of whack, thrown off by her own emotional turmoil. She visits seventeen-year-old Adam (Fionn Whitehead) in hospital, learns more about the leukaemia that threatens his life, asks him what he really wants.

Later, it transpires that what Adam wants is more than Fiona can give: he’s obsessed with her, phoning her, writing letters to her, asking her if he can live with her as a lodger or an odd-job man; he wants to learn from her. But I don’t really understand the underlying message here; I don’t know what I’m supposed to take away from this. Is the implication that Fiona should invest more in the boy? Or that she’s transgressed by opening up as much as she has? What’s the point of this final third; what is it trying to say?

Some of what’s implied may not be deliberate, but there are a few points that keep niggling at me. For example, the whole Jehovah’s Witness/blood transfusion thing. Why is this the only story I ever hear about the JW church (there is, I concede, a refreshingly different take in Deborah Frances-White Rolls the Dice)? It’s just another unfathomable religious stricture, and one that can only affect a tiny minority. Why does it have so much traction in fiction and film? Perhaps it’s just too soon after (the much better) Apostasy?

There’s also the vexed question of misogynistic stereotypes: why does Fiona Maye have to suffer for a successful career? She’s sacrificed her marriage; she’s sad about not making time to have children. Why? Why is this always the narrative? It’s boring and annoying to meet this cliché again. Her husband seems to be holding down his career okay, and he can fit in dinner and tennis and a semblance of a social life. Why can’t it be the same for her?

Ach, it’s a shame, because the acting really is sublime. I’m especially impressed by Jason Watkins’ turn as Maye’s hapless lackey, Nigel – an object lesson in the art of maximising the impact of what is really a small role. And the glimpse into the life of a judge is fascinating too; this feels as if it could be something better, if only it were less… restrained. As it stands, it doesn’t really work for me.

3.1 stars

Susan Singfield

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On Chesil Beach

 

27/05/18

I’m surprised to realise I haven’t read On Chesil Beach. I’ve read most of Ian McEwan’s ouvre, but not this slim novella. Maybe I’ve just balked at paying a standard paperback price for so few pages. Whatever. When friends suggest we meet up and make a day of it – a film in the afternoon; a meal in the evening – I’m more than happy to give this one a go.

It’s a decent movie, adapted by the author. Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle give excellent central performances as Florence and Edward, the clever young couple whose love for one another is evident, but who cannot negotiate the weight of expectation on their wedding night. They are wounded and humiliated by their failure to consummate their marriage; their naivety and innocence is heartbreaking to see. Too angry, too proud, too fragile, they don’t give themselves a chance, and their relationship is over before it’s even really begun. Their excruciating attempts to initiate sex are depicted here in agonising detail, their awkwardness and vulnerability cleverly conveyed.

We learn their history through flashbacks, which is quite effective in slowing down the pace and emphasising the couple’s interminable embarrassment. They meet when Edward blunders into an Oxford student CND meeting, bursting with the news that he’s gained a first in his degree. With no one to tell, he turns to a stranger – and Florence, who has just graduated with the same grade, is happy to help him celebrate. They come from very different backgrounds: she from the status-obsessed upper middle-classes, with an academic mother (Emily Watson) and an angrily competitive father (Samuel West); he from a more bohemian country life – his mild-mannered father (Adrian Scarborough) is head teacher of the village school; his mother (Anne-Marie Duff) is an artist, ‘brain-damaged’ after an accident. No matter; Florence and Edward fall in love. And, after their disastrous wedding night, they fall apart.

Much has been made of McEwan’s ingenuity in condensing the rest of the couple’s lives to a kind of footnote, thus highlighting the significance of their failure on that fateful day. But –  for me at least – this is the film’s failing. It feels like a careful set-up followed by a sketchy summary, and I am disappointed by the broad strokes of the final third.

Still, I’m glad I’ve seen it. It’s a sad tale of an experience that is hopefully far less commonplace, now that the silly notion of ‘saving oneself’ for a wedding night is a thing of the distant past.

3.8 stars

Susan Singfield