This story is based on Ian McEwan’s book of the same name published in 2014, and as you might expect from an Ian McEwan story, it’s pretty well about the private, interior world of its characters, in this case of a respected English judge, but I’m not entirely sure the film succeeds in turning her inner life into cinematic drama.
Mrs Justice Fiona Maye, played by Emma Thompson, specialising in cases that come under The Children Act, (curiously not the children’s act), modern English legislation that requires institutions dealing with children to put their interests first.
You wouldn’t want her job. She deals in agonisingly difficult medico-legal issues, such as whether to allow doctors to go ahead and separate conjoined twins, knowing that the surgery will certainly kill one of them. On the other hand, not to operate means both will certainly die. The parents refuse to allow the surgery, and the media is ready to pounce and denounce her, whichever way she decides.
That’s the case she’s just decided when we first meet her. I won’t say how she decides, as there’s not much drama outside the decisions she has to make. Well, except that her husband announces he’s sick of her workaholism and though he still loves her he wants to have an affair because in his view she’s already left the marriage and has no time for him.
How should she react? Well that turns out to be a bit of a fluid situation – again, can’t say too much – but meanwhile she’s presented with another thorny one. And it’s urgent. A 17-year-old boy just a few months short of his 18th birthday has leukaemia and needs blood transfusion so the doctors can give him life-saving drugs. If no blood, he dies a horrible death within days. Trouble is, the boy and his parents are devout Jehovah’s Witnesses and are refusing the transfusion. If he was eighteen he could refuse on his own behalf and the court couldn’t do anything about it. But Mrs Justice Maye has to decide whether to allow the hospital to defy the family’s wishes and go ahead with the procedure.
The courtroom scenes outlining the opposing medico/legal/moral argument are in many ways the best thing about this film, apart from the wonderful understated English acting, especially of the wonderful Emma Thompson. Stanley Tucci is also good as the husband – a philosophy lecturer, and you’ll probably be distracted, like we were, by the ‘what’s he been in?’ game. Look out for the boss cop from New Tricks and the seductive fantasist from Apple Tree Yard.
But these grave matters take second place to the emotional impact on Fiona Maye of her encounter with the young man, and of her husband’s bombshell. But it all takes a very long time to resolve and in the end I was left wondering what was that all about? Even as I relished the setting: the affluence, the high culture, the book-lined studies and the genteel soirees of these wealthy, educated Londoners. Not to mention the casual condescension to inferiors like her clerk, who must call Justice Maye M’Lady, even while picking up after her and enduring her bouts of impatience and grumpiness.