Cast: Stanley Tucci, Emma Thompson, Andrew Havill, Ben Chaplin, Fionn Whitehead
Director: Sir Richard Eyre
Running Time: 105 minutes
Synopsis: Fiona Maye (Emma Thompson) is an eminent High Court judge in London presiding with wisdom and compassion over ethically complex cases of family law. However, her fastidiousness and renown have come at a heavy cost to her personal life, and the intrusion of her workload has pushed her marriage to American professor Jack (Stanley Tucci) to tipping point. When Jack tells Fiona that he is considering having an affair, Fiona is left stunned, and finds herself unable to make a case for her own marriage.
With Jack gone, Fiona throws herself into the multitude of cases that require her attention, seeking stability in the rule of law, the procedures and traditions of the legal world, while her private life crumbles around her.
In this moment of personal crisis, Fiona is asked to rule on the case of Adam (Fionn Whitehead), a brilliant boy who is refusing on religious grounds the blood transfusion that will save his life. Adam is nearly eighteen but still legally a child. Should Fiona let him die or force him to live? Having heard emotive arguments from Adam's parents and hospital staff, Fiona halts proceedings and takes the unusual decision to visit Adam in hospital, so that she can see for herself the extent to which Adam is aware of the possible consequences of his refusal of a transfusion.
At the hospital, Fiona finds Adam to be lively, energetic and confused; he is angry about the pressure being exerted on him from all sides to commit to a choice that will profoundly change the course of his life, or end it. Once Fiona has finished probing Adam's thoughts on his faith and understanding of his situation, Adam asks Fiona to stay a little longer by his bedside, where he begins to play his guitar. Recognising the tune, Fiona surprises everyone – including herself – by singing along to Yeat's 'Down by the Salley Gardens' with Adam. In doing so she stirs strong new emotions in the boy and long-buried feelings in her.
Back in court, Fiona rules in favour of the hospital, and Adam is forcibly transfused. Some time later, she receives a voicemail from Adam which expresses both wonder at poetry and the potential of life and a desire for a closer relationship with her. Fiona secretly takes great pleasure in this message, but when Adam follows her home one day to give her letters and poems he has written for her, Fiona begins to sense the disruption she has created in his life, and tells him that he is not to see her again. Jack returns home, determined to repair their marriage, though Fiona is angry and forces him to sleep in the spare bedroom.
Fiona travels to Newcastle at the start of the Northern legal circuit. In her palatial but chilly lodgings, a dinner with local businessmen and lawyers is disturbed by a pressing issue: Adam has arrived in the pouring rain, soaked to the skin. Fiona sits with the distressed boy, but once it's clear that his reason for being there – to ask her to let him come and live with her – is to be denied, he grows agitated, asking Fiona why she interrupted his life and dragged him into a world which asks more questions than it answers. Unable to give him an answer, Fiona calls him a taxi to take him to the station, where her clerk will buy him a ticket to return to London. As he leaves, a goodbye kiss on the cheek is turned by Adam into something more. Fiona, mortified by allowing her heart to rule her head, stands shocked as Adam and the taxi disappear into the night.
Months pass. In the run-up to Christmas, Fiona and Jack's relationship is still strained. Just before she is due to play piano for a barrister's medley of Christmas songs at a celebration in Gray's Inn, Fiona is told that Adam's cancer has returned and, now eighteen, he is refusing both treatment and his parents and is dying in a hospice. Once their performance is finished Fiona and the barrister start their encore, 'My Funny Valentine'. However, Fiona, overcome by the news of Adam, begins to play 'Down by the Salley Gardens', singing it herself when the barrister makes it clear he does not know the lyrics. She is unable to complete the song and rushes offstage in front of the confused crowd to Adam's bedside. There she attempts to persuade him to save himself, before finally asking the boy who had so many questions for her: Why is he choosing to die? Adam, barely able to breathe, says that it is his choice.
Distraught, Fiona returns to her apartment in Gray's Inn where she desperately searches the letters Adam sent her for a reason as to why he has chosen to die. Jack returns from looking for her and, as he questions her, she begins to tell them about their relationship. Finally losing control of her emotions, Fiona breaks down in tears and hurries from Jack to her bedroom. In the morning, she wakes to find that Jack has been by her side all night; he implores her to tell the whole story, and the two of them begin their reconciliation.
Days later, on the chilly morning of the funeral, Fiona watches Adam's burial from afar, standing apart from the rest of the mourners. She turns to leave and joins Jack, who is waiting for her. They leave together, arm in arm.
The Children Act
Release Date: November 22nd, 2018
"Some years ago I found myself at dinner with a handful of judges" recalls Ian McEwan. "They were talking shop, and I was politely resisting the urge to take notes. At one point, our host, Sir Alan Ward, an appeal court judge, wanting to settle some mild disagreement, got up and reached from a shelf a bound volume of his own judgments. An hour later, when we had left the table for coffee, that book lay open on my lap. These judgments were like short stories, or novellas; the background to some dispute or dilemma crisply summarised, characters drawn with quick strokes, the story distributed across several points of view and, towards its end, some sympathy extended towards those whom, ultimately, the narrative would not favour."
"These were not cases in the criminal courts, where it must be decided beyond reasonable doubt whether a man is a villain or an unlucky victim. Nothing so black and white. These stories were in the family division, where much of ordinary life's serious interests lie: love and marriage, and the end of both, fortunes querulously divided, parental cruelty and neglect, the bitterly contested destinies of children. Here, in my lap, were realistically conceived characters moving through plausible, riveting situations, raising complex ethical questions."
"Three years after my supper with that bench of judges, Alan Ward told me of a Jehovah's Witness case he had once presided over. The character of the judge who was so compassionately and rationally intent on a good outcome, seemed inseparable from the story. When I heard it, I remembered my earlier impression – that the family division of the high court is rooted in the same ground as fiction, where all of life's vital interests lie. With the luxury of withholding judgment, a novel could interpose itself here, reinvent the characters and circumstances, and begin to investigate an encounter between love and belief, between the secular spirit of the law and sincerely held faith."
McEwan's novel "The Children Act" was published five years later, in September 2014. The novel's title recalls the UK's Children Act of 1989, which revolutionised the law relating to children by putting the welfare of the child above all else in cases brought to the family division. The novel won widespread praise, with the Guardian calling it "hugely enjoyable…a triumph of imagination over research", the Observer hailing it as "masterful", while GQ said the novel "shows McEwan as a master of fiction who strives to teach us how to live".
The novel's protagonist is a woman: Fiona Maye, a High Court judge in the Family Division. Having recently presided over an ethically complex and emotionally demanding case involving conjoined twins, Fiona is called on to decide urgently whether or not to allow a hospital to transfuse Adam Henry, a Jehovah's Witness boy with leukemia, against his wishes. Fiona's personal life is at a challenging point: in her fifties, she is coming to terms with being childless just as her marriage to university lecturer Jack seems to be falling apart.
"She's an intensely private woman," says McEwan of Fiona Maye. "I suppose she's another in the long line of characters of mine who try to live a rational existence but find that that's not easy and that rationality doesn't always protect you from the buffeting that life brings. She's moving towards the end of her professional career at which she's been a great success, having overseen decisions in the divorce courts for half a lifetime, and she's devastated by the possible collapse of her long settled stable marriage to Jack. She's a kind woman but not given to a great deal of emotional display and she finds she doesn't really have the language to talk to her husband about their sex life so she's not very well defended against this crisis that comes up in her life."
"Fiona decides mid-proceedings to visit the boy in the hospital, which is quite unorthodox," he continues.
"She wants to find out exactly who he is and what he wants. Fiona's judgment in favour of transfusion opens up a whole new, challenging, beautiful, terrifying world to Adam, whose life has hitherto been circumscribed by the dictates of his religion. With his new lease of life he is offered freedom, the right to believe what he chooses, and to think for himself: a world of learning, and wonder, and love."
Some months before the novel was published McEwan was discussing it with director and long-time friend Richard Eyre, and he mooted the idea of Eyre directing a screen adaptation. Having worked together on their first film The Imitation Game in the late 70's and then again on The Ploughman's Lunch in 1981, the pair had hoped to work together again, as McEwan elaborates: "Both of those were very agreeable experiences and I thought we would work together again sometime soon, and we kept mentioning it again for the next thirty years - but never got around to it. The prospect of working with Richard again was a sheer delight and the focus of a lifetime's ambition, so when I handed over the novel I said if this is ever made into a film the person to direct it would be Richard – it would be a very actorcentred piece. One of the great things about Richard is he's had such long experience in the theatre which has given him a wonderful approach and touch, and actors love working with him - and I knew that with Richard directing we could probably get anyone he wanted to work with into the film."
The novel's compelling examination of its two protagonists, the middle-aged judge, the teenager on the brink of death - investigating the moral choices they face, and the impact each has on the other's life - resonated immediately with the director. "Ian is a rationalist who examines, sometimes forensically, the characters he's preoccupied with," says Eyre. "But most importantly he endows those characters with a full-blooded humanity so you never feel you're watching a chessboard of moral imperatives. They're always people who have lives out of which actions emerge, sometimes benevolent, sometimes disastrous."
"Fiona's intervention, and her ensuing judgment allowing the blood transfusion, lead to a relationship of mutual dependency between the judge, who has been, in a way, in the position of playing God, and the boy whose life she saves," continues Eyre. "Meanwhile her husband accuses her of opting out of their marriage. It's not a conscious opting-out, it's just that her very important and all-consuming work has preoccupied her to the extent that she's become increasingly insulated from the world of emotions and from her relationship with her husband. All the while, she becomes increasingly attached to, or obsessed by, a boy whose life she has saved, and she has become to him a kind of luminous intelligence and calm and tranquility - everything that doesn't exist in the rest of his life."
McEwan was not initially keen to write the screenplay: "It started with maybe a rather negative impulse as I didn't really want to revisit the material, but I didn't want anyone else to do it either, and so it was an agreeable surprise that I found the process fascinating. A novel gives you access to people's thoughts, a screenplay does not, and finding the transcription from what is thought or implied in a novel to what has to be said and done between people in a film is an intellectual and emotional challenge. Once I found it was really enjoyable I got deeply into it and spent as much time writing this screenplay as I did the novel."
To help bring the story to the screen, Eyre and McEwan decided to ask British film producer Duncan Kenworthy if he would take it on. Kenworthy read a pre-publication copy of the novel in one sitting and immediately said yes. "They had me at hello!" he laughs. "There are so few opportunities for intelligent, engrossing, moving storytelling in film, and this is one of the best. I've always loved Ian's writing, but here it's as if all his preoccupations have found their perfect shape and place. The central story sounds so straightforward – a courtroom drama – and yet the emotional intricacies of a brilliant, childless judge caught between her husband and the boy whose life she must save or sacrifice are miraculously complex." "The beauty and pleasure of Ian's writing is in its precision - in his ability to absolutely nail every idea and emotion," says Kenworthy. "He loves research and investigates the milieu of his stories with complete diligence. This all translates seamlessly to the screen. There's a wonderful clarity and almost an inevitability about his screenwriting which draws you on, and in."
Kenworthy was clear that the creative partnership of McEwan and director Richard Eyre would yield rich rewards. "Richard and Ian are close friends and each clearly knows and values the strengths of the other. Even if that had not been the case, Richard would always have been the ideal director for this film because it's the territory that he's inhabited so perfectly before in Iris and Notes on a Scandal. He's also a consummate director of actors, and in addition to its narrative strengths this film was always going to depend on some great performances."
With the protagonist, a high court judge whose intelligence and commitment have got her to the top of her profession, there was, according to Richard Eyre, only one actor who could do justice to the role of Fiona Maye: Emma Thompson. "If Emma hadn't wanted to do the film we wouldn't have made it, we couldn't have made it," says the director. "Emma is the most extraordinary actress and it's impossible to imagine the role being played by another actress, even more now with hindsight."
It didn't take long for Thompson to agree to join the project. It wasn't just the finesse of the writing but the fact that the role allowed her to immerse herself into an entirely new and fascinating world. "The book is so spare and beautifully written," she explains, "but I think what really bit into me with this project was learning about the female judges in family court and doing the research to prepare for the part. The work they do, the life they lead, the drudgery of it and the responsibility took my breath away - I was so impressed with these women."
The character's having to negotiate a difficult personal life and a challenging professional case was an irresistible draw. "The film starts just as this massive crack appears in Fiona's marriage, which has been rocky for a while, and you see her having to step over it straight into the court room and work, work, work. She returns home to this chasm and she can't address it because she's got to do the work. She's dealing with the fact that she and her husband haven't had sex for 11 months and he's acting out because she won't talk."
"A truism about this kind of work is that it leaves very little space for anything else," continues Thompson. "They have to take in so much information and then extrapolate what they need for a judgment that they have to make very quickly because someone might die if they don't. Playing a character who has to handle that kind of intellectual hurdle-jumping was inspiring and invigorating because there's a great energy from that kind of intellectual capacity which is perhaps that's why they can carry on beyond normal."
Thompson also recognised how perfect the match was between the material and the director . "The story with all its complications needed someone like Richard Eyre," she says. "He spends his life telling very complete stories on stage. He knows where actors should stand and sit and he knows what he wants dayto-day. He's a brilliant editor so not only can he see what you're doing but he can see how to get more out of your performance. I was constantly grateful to him."
Duncan Kenworthy was already a great admirer of Thompson's skill and sensitivity as an actor, having produced the film Love Actually in which she stars. "The scene of her crying in the bedroom – or rather holding back the tears as she straightens the counterpane – is famous for a reason. Which is that Emma completely inhabits the characters she plays from the inside. So in The Children Act every gesture, every look, every intonation fits a High Court judge. She is miraculously good at putting in the work, thinking it through and then being it".
Ian McEwan adds: "I trusted Richard and from very early on he wanted Emma for the role and even when we sat around her kitchen table for a read through adjusting lines to make them as comfortable on her tongue as possible and she came up with some very good suggestions it was clear to me she was the judge and it's a commanding performance. She captured something very English, a certain kind of person whose feelings run deep but whose expression of those feelings is highly defended. She turns in the most extraordinary performance - she is the film, and she took it to another place. It was a real privilege to work with her."
Sir Alan Ward – the film's legal consultant - concurs: "Emma played the role magnificently. She was astonishingly perceptive and punctilious in her preparation. I introduced her to a number of judges, especially female judges, as she was anxious to understand the pressures of being a woman in the job – pressures that are different from those of being a man in the job. She understood that sense of isolation that one has to have without forfeiting the humanity that you need to bring to the job, and she captures that in her performance. She is wonderful."
In the role of Fiona Maye's frustrated husband, Jack, is Stanley Tucci. For Tucci, the film fulfils several of his professional ambitions. "I've always wanted to work with Emma Thompson - she is one of the greatest actresses ever, she's so versatile, she's a comedienne and a great dramatic actress. And I've always wanted to work with Richard Eyre," he says. "I really admire Ian McEwan as a writer and I thought the script was very beautiful. So all those elements were very attractive."
Tucci describes the milieu in which Fiona and Jack live as "almost rarefied. They're both very well educated and they live in Gray's Inn in central London and they want for nothing. But Fiona has become more driven as she's got older when other people might be winding down at that point in their career, and it's that drive that's taken her away from the relationship emotionally. She ends up having a sort of platonic love affair with a young man who is dying. Jack's a professor of ancient history and, faced with a marriage that's faltering, he states quite plainly that much as he loves her he misses the intimacy and would like to have an affair."
"When we came up with the idea of Stanley in that part, the whole film made sense," says producer Duncan Kenworthy. "Stanley can do things other actors can't get away with: he's able to be the bad boy and tell the heroine that he's going to have an affair but still make you want them to be together at the end. With Stanley in the role, Jack is exactly as we wanted him to be."
Emma Thompson agrees: "Stanley is just such a marvellous actor – extraordinary, really. His character is very hard to bring off and still have people like him as he's got some quite difficult things to say. But Stanley was remarkable."
For Richard Eyre, "Stanley brings to any film a kind of authority which is born partly of experience, partly of his natural gravitas. He's a seriously likeable, grown-up, intelligent man."
Ian McEwan adds: "I was overjoyed with the way Stanley Tucci played the part of Jack. There was such authority in the way he played him. In general what he brings to it was to give a sympathetic and warm reading to Jack. There is also a directness which is well expressed by an American to an English person, and a human touch that really makes a difference. Right at the end he has great tenderness. It a beautifully poised, beautifully pitched, performance."
The role of Adam, the teenager who is prepared to die for his faith, is played by rising British star, Fionn Whitehead. "This was a really critical part - Adam has to be both the child that Fiona never had and also a romantic figure for her," says Kenworthy. " Fionn fits in both of those categories. He's nineteen but was able to very convincingly play a seventeen year-old while also having the solidity that suggests adulthood and was vital for the role of Adam."
Whitehead describes Adam as "sheltered, innocent and pure because of his upbringing as a Jehovah's Witness. Fiona opens his eyes to beauty and art and poems and to expressing himself, which has been repressed, and it floods into him and he's unable to keep it back. All the positivity and creativity really affects him and has a resounding impact on him. He's a very sensitive soul and that was one of the things that surprised me on reading the book: he's so open; most people have their defenses up whereas Adam is completely without barriers. He was really interesting to play because he's completely raw and experiences things to extremes, so when he's excited about something he's the most excited person in the world, and when he's anguished about something he's completely bereft, and there's not a lot of inbetween. His openness has a profound impact on Fiona. Because of her job, she is quite de-sensitized to people and she craves closeness to anybody at that point, so when she meets Adam she realizes what she has been missing."
As a young man, Whitehead recognised the truths in the way the character was drawn and the pressures he is forced to confront. "Adam is being opened up to the world around him," he says. "All the wonder as well as all the bad things that face him are things most teenagers can relate to. That was an interesting theme to explore. Being a teenager is often talked about as the best time of your life but no one really talks about the craziness of it all, how you're suddenly expected to be grown up and how overwhelming it all is."
It was also, says Whitehead, a joy to savor the elegance of Ian McEwan's writing. "The way Ian writes is so vivid and descriptive of the characters, and the setting of the whole story is so rich," he says. "He uses one word where another writer might use twenty - his writing is very precise so when you read it every word is meant to be there."
Whitehead's sensitivity as an actor was immediately obvious to all involved. "Fionn is ingenious, charming and intelligent and somehow beyond his years, but at the same time he's not precocious," says Richard Eyre. "He's very curious, very enquiring and very watchful."
"Fionn plays a young man who is brought up in a very closed environment of the Jehovah's Witness community and is refusing life-saving treatment," says Emma Thompson. "Fiona Maye is surprised by him – not only is he exceptionally beautiful but he's a musician and a profound thinker. She listens to him with absolute sincerity and conviction, without condescending to him, and that changes his life because he has never been listened to before like that. And he infects her with a sense of youth and vitality and so there's no question of what she must do and she saves his life."
Ian McEwan was extremely impressed by Whitehead's performance: "Fionn had a mountain to climb with this part because he had to deliver a boy who has lived in a very closed religious community, sparky, yet determined to present his own religious case. Innocent beyond belief, with a barely concealed hunger for life, vulnerability, cockiness and a demanding nature, he's hungry for something else beyond his religious instruction and he knows in his heart that she's the one to deliver it. He rose beautifully to it, it's a fabulous performance."
The combination of a compelling story, richly complex themes, brilliant writing and a cast of superlative talent made filming The Children Act a delight for Richard Eyre. "I'm thrilled to be directing these brilliant actors in this powerful story by one of our greatest living novelists," he says.
For Sir Alan Ward, the experience was enormously enjoyable. "It was a privilege to see, in Richard Eyre, a master at work," he says. "Richard's care and knowledge of the subject, his understanding of the technicalities of being a judge and conducting a trial, and his understanding of human frailty, all made it eye-opening for me and a most enriching couple of months in my life."
Producer Duncan Kenworthy concludes: "It's impossible to imagine a better cast or director to bring to life Ian's wonderful, emotional story about the degree to which we are all responsible for those we love or in whose lives we intervene."
With cast and crew in place, filming started in October 2016 on location in central London at Gray's Inn, Lincoln's Inn, the Royal Courts of Justice, and on sound stages at Pinewood Studios.
It was important to the filmmakers that London be shown in a particular light, as Ian McEwan explains: "In our earliest conversations Richard and I decided this had to be a London movie. London on film always seems to have a kitchen sink quality and is often about double decker buses, drains and aerials and not Blackfriars or Waterloo bridge. These are beautiful things, the skyline is beautiful, so it was marvelous that we got them in."
Production designer Peter Francis was given the task of creating the look of the film. Francis and Eyre opted to create very different designs to reflect the distinct worlds of their characters.
After investigating the environments of those working in the legal system, Francis decided to avoid soft tones and surfaces and go for a starker design. "The legal world is quite regimented," says Francis. "Everything looks a little municipal, with hard lines and sharp edges, and all the people working there are dressed very smartly, often in uniform."
McEwan adds: "I applaud Richard's decision that Fiona Maye should preside over a modern court room and that we would get away from the usual ancient oak paneling, it opened up real possibilities for the design. The fact that her office is just four steps away from the court room and she has to knock on the door – so we inhabit the space, there is a sort of routine to it. We imagined that Fiona lived in Alan Ward's old apartment, and part of it was actually filmed on his staircase at Gray's Inn which gave it a nice connection."
Thanks to Sir Alan Ward's connections and Richard Eyre's and Duncan Kenworthy's reputations, the filmmakers were given special dispensation to film inside the Great Hall of the Royal Courts of Justice, and to capture its magnificent Victorian Gothic design. For Francis, this was a fantastic boon. "It gives us immediate scale and beds us into the reality of the legal world," he says. "Fiona Maye's universe is effectively confined to one square mile: Gray's Inn, where she lives, and the Royal Courts of Justice, where she works.
"In contrast to her courtroom and office, her home life needed to feel more personal and individual," continues Francis. "We had quite distinct color palettes for the two worlds, with Fiona's Gray's Inn apartment an accumulation of her life with Jack."
Ian McEwan describes the scenes set outside London: "As in the novel I thought there had to be one excursion from London, which is why I seized on the notion that high court judges have to travel around the country to crown courts - taking the London judiciary to the provinces to try cases that can't be heard in front of magistrates. So this was an excuse to get away from the tight London scene and open the film up beautifully in terms of design. A train journey where Fiona is reading Adam's intellectually demanding letters as the whole of England is rushing by – beautiful fields but also the post-industrial world of solar panels and rotting buildings – is beautifully pitched."
Francis is proud of having been able to showcase some of the capital's most architecturally impressive - but still relatively unfamiliar - buildings. "I believe we were able to show London at its best," he says.
"Gray's Inn and Lincoln's Inn are very central but quite hidden and we wanted to give a real sense of this beautiful, almost secret world right in the middle of London. Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII's famous minister, was a member of Gray's Inn, and apparently William Shakespeare himself acted in Gray's Inn Hall, the setting for our film's climactic Christmas concert."
The Children Act
Release Date: November 22nd, 2018