The Children Act

October 1, 2018 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Emma Thompson, Fionn Whitehead, Stanley Tucci
Directed by: Richard Eyre (“Notes on a Scandal”)
Written by: Ian McEwan (“On Chesil Beach”)

Films where characters are presented with a moral dilemma usually give rise to thought-provoking conversations. In the 2015 war thriller “Eye in the Sky,” the decency of the U.S. military is examined when they must decide if they should bomb a group of terrorists if it also means killing a young girl near the targeted site. In 2007’s “Gone Baby Gone,” the question posed at the end of the film is whether the wellbeing of a child should be risked in favor of a neglectful mother’s rights.

The complicated, life-altering situations continue in “The Children Act,” a polarizing and ultimately erratic drama starring two-time Academy Award-winning actress Emma Thompson (“Sense and Sensibility”) as an English judge assessing a controversial case. Although Thompson is a gem, “The Children Act” minimizes its most interesting courtroom narrative with insignificant storylines during the first half before transforming into an entirely different — and less absorbing — picture in the second.

Thompson stars as Fiona Maye, a High Court justice living in London with her American professor husband Jack (Stanley Tucci), who confesses to her that he has become dissatisfied with their passionless marriage. Besides placing added stress on Fiona, who is obviously a workaholic, the revelation doesn’t add much to the screenplay adapted by Ian McEwan (“On Chesil Beach”) from his own 2014 novel of the same name. Still, McEwan and director Richard Eyre (“Notes on a Scandal”) milk the relationship problems for all they’re worth, which hurts the impact of the film’s main moral issue.

The case that comes across Fiona’s desk is of Adam Henry (Fionn Whitehead), a devout 17-year-old Jehovah’s Witness and leukemia patient who sites his religious beliefs and refuses a life-saving blood transfusion. Despite having little time to weigh the circumstances fully (Adam will die soon without the procedure), Fiona makes an unprecedented move and chooses to meet Adam at the hospital before she makes a final ruling.

Until the encounter takes place, “The Children Act,” named after a law in the United Kingdom that requires the protection of a child’s welfare, is a well-developed and smart story in spite of the overplayed and hollow marital spat. Where the film comes apart is when we step out of the courtroom and into an awkward scenario where Fiona’s personal life collides with her work life in a way she’s never experienced before.

As the pragmatic Fiona, Thompson gives a brilliantly direct performance — one that will probably be overshadowed by showier characters once awards season starts getting serious — and stands out as one of her best since 2013’s “Saving Mr. Banks.” A major opportunity is missed, however, when the script chooses to take a clumsy route rather than a compelling one when it hits the homestretch.

On Chesil Beach

June 22, 2018 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Billy Howle, Emily Watson
Directed by: Dominic Cooke (debut)
Written by: Ian McEwan (“The Innocent”)

A fledgling marriage comes to a major crossroad before it begins in “On Chesil Beach,” a period drama adapted by English author/screenwriter Ian McEwan (“The Innocent”) from his bestselling 2007 novel of the same name.

Set in 1962 England, “On Chesil Beach” introduces Florence (three-time Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan) and Edward Mayhew (Billy Howle), newlyweds who decide to spend their wedding night in a hotel on the seashore. Florence and Edward come from different backgrounds and don’t share the same interests. Edward likes American rock ’n’ roll while Florence prefers classical music. He enjoys history and birdwatching while her only extracurricular activity is playing the violin in a string ensemble.

“I think you must be the squarest person in all of Western civilization,” Edward tells his wife after she describes Chuck Berry as “bouncy.” But her taste in music isn’t going to be their undoing. It’s impossible to talk about “On Chesil Beach” without revealing exactly why Florence and Edward are such a bad fit. So, we’ll just say it: Florence is revolted by sex and has no desire to ever consummate their marriage, a small detail Edward probably would’ve liked to have known before they tied the knot.

It becomes apparent in the first half of the film that McEwan’s critically acclaimed novel has translation issues on the silver screen. The most evident is the time spent on the awkward scenes inside the hotel room where Florence and Edward fumble with zippers and avoid intimacy by nervously bantering back and forth. It’s easy to see how these details could be read as emotionally tragic, but seeing it play out cinematically feels disconnected.

Also weak are the numerous flashbacks in the screenplay that McEwan and first-time director Dominic Cooke attempt to use to mold the two leads into realistic characters who would resonate with audiences. Besides an ambiguous scene where it’s hinted that Florence might have been sexually abused as a child, not much from these nonlinear sections of the film give any insight into who these individuals are. Even a secondary storyline about Edward’s mentally ill mother forces the narrative into melodramatic pitfalls.

Ronan’s and Howle’s onscreen chemistry, too, is nonexistent. Even when they’re not acting like the most pitiful virgins in movie history since Jason Biggs humped pastry in “American Pie,” the characters are stunted. Without the same authority that filmmaker Todd Haynes used to confront issues of sexuality in the 1950s and 1960s in his films “Far from Heaven” and “Carol,” Cooke’s “On Chesil Beach” is a missed opportunity to add to that conversation.