Stanley Tucci

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

Advertisements

Spotlight

Unknown

30/01/16

Spotlight arrives in the UK amidst much speculation that it could win an Oscar this year. It’s easy to see why. This true-life tale of the Boston Globe’s attempts to lift the lid on a despicable case of corruption, perpetrated by the Catholic church, would be riveting stuff even if it wasn’t based on a true story.

The title refers to a four-person team of reporters charged with seeking out stories of special interest to the residents of Boston. When they hear about an adult victim who claims to have been molested by a Catholic priest back in his childhood, and moreover, complaining that his appeals for help went unheeded, they begin to ask questions. But right from the start there are potential problems. Boston is a staunchly Catholic community, so there will be many who would prefer things to be kept under the carpet. Furthermore, it’s 2001 and the newspaper industry is struggling with the depredations of the internet. A new boss, Marty Baron (Live Schreiber) has just been appointed and many people in the industry are worried for their jobs. But Baron recognises a potential scoop when he sees one and assigns  Walter ‘Robbie’ Robinson (Michael Keaton) and his team to do some digging. When they do they are increasingly amazed and horrified by the scale of the subterfuge. Could there really be as many as 90 paedophile priests in Boston alone?

The film expertly avoids sensationalism and drives home the message that such investigations are the result of months and months of donkeywork, reading through endless files, knocking on doors, pursuing every possible lead. There are excellent performances from Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams and Stanley Tucchi, but this is an ensemble piece, with not a weak performance to be seen. The film’s conclusion, when the full scale of the problem is finally uncovered, is frankly staggering and will surely make the most committed Catholics question their faith in an institution that will go to such lengths to harbour the guilty. It’s important too, to mention, that the Spotlight team are not presented as four saints in shining armour, but as committed reporters who will go to any lengths to get their scoop.

Shocking, but compelling, Spotlight has earned its place as one of the films of the year.

4.5 stars

Philip Caveney