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Film Review: 'The Children Act' - Does Justice Care?

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About The Author

Bláthnaid Breslin (Joint Editor-in-Chief)

Bláthnaid recently graduated from the University of Nottingham with a first class degree. She is currently undertaking the BPTC in London, funded by a Lord Denning scholarship, and will begin the BCL at Oxford in September. She has a particular interest in land law and social housing. Outside the law, Bláthnaid is a talented tennis player who played for the University of Nottingham Ladies’ II Team.

©The Children Act

The Children Act is the second of Ian McEwan’s novels to be adapted to film this summer. The title is a nod to the Children Act 1989 and its declaration in Section 1(1) that ‘the child’s welfare shall be the court’s paramount consideration’. This statement has a pivotal role in the book, and in its film adaptation. Fiona Maye – a High Court judge who lives in Gray’s Inn with her husband – is asked to decide whether to allow a hospital to give a blood transfusion to a 17-year-old Jehovah’s Witness (Adam Henry), whose age prevents his veto. In declaring the welfare of the child to be supreme, Fiona overrides the wishes of the boy and his parents – though, as is drawn out in cross-examination of the boy’s father, these wishes may not be distinguishable.

Before delivering her judgment, Fiona takes the unconventional – though not unheard of and not inexplicable – step of visiting Adam in his hospital bed. In this scene, the characters forge an emotional bond that forms the basis of the plot’s development: he plays guitar and Fiona sings along (with lyrics from a Yeats poem - significant later in the film); the boy seems mesmerised by her and the poem, but refuses to change his mind about the blood transfusion. The child’s welfare is paramount: Fiona decides in favour of the hospital, who give him a blood transfusion later that day.

Post-recovery Henry finds himself asking questions – why did his parents believe in a religion that would have forced them to sacrifice their son? Does he still believe in that religion? Why did Fiona visit him in the hospital that afternoon, when the court invariably decides in favour of medical intervention? His pursuit of answers drives him into an obsession with the judge: he sends her voicemails, letters, and eventually follows her to a dinner in Newcastle. In this near-stalker frenzy the film asks its own questions of the audience: was the seemingly-tender bond formed between the two characters one-sided? And if Fiona Maye is taken to represent Justice, then does Justice care about its subjects?

Fiona listens to Henry’s voicemails and reads his letters but does not respond. When he follows her in Gray’s Inn, she warns him to leave her alone, and tells him that ‘for me, your case is over’. In Newcastle, she listens to him pour out his confused reflections – on his life, his religion, and her role in the story – before calling him a taxi back to London. This is the image of Justice with which we are familiar: detached, professional, unfaltering. The law – be it precedent or statute – is to be applied to the facts, without regard to the emotional consequences that may result. If we do not like the result, then perhaps there is something wrong with the law; but this can be changed by higher courts. The problem is with the particular law and not the system (we reassure ourselves).

But the reality of delivering justice is different. The grand gestures of legal principle that we learn about at law school almost invariably take place in the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court. The reality is that the majority of justice is delivered in the County Courts and the High Court (where Fiona sits). Where facts matter, complainants matter, and results matter. 

So, does Justice care about its subjects? The resounding answer of the film is: yes. When the Jehovah’s Witness case first comes to Fiona Maye, she snaps at her clerk to ‘give the boy a name!’ As she puts Adam in a taxi back to London (after her follows her to Newcastle) he kisses her briefly, but she does not pull away. And finally, when she is informed at the Christmas recital that the boy is back in hospital and refusing treatment again – this time he is 18 and so he can veto intervention – she interrupts her scheduled performance to play the same song from the initial scene in the hospital, before breaking off and running to see him in hospital.

The conflict between perceptions of the justice system and reality is explored further in the film. The English judiciary, as we known it, is made up of statuesque beatific characters, whose names are familiar and whose only known weaknesses are their worst received judgments: Denning, Scarman, Hale, Wilberforce, Atkin. What The Children Act presents to its audience is a humanised version of being a judge, not known to legal textbooks: it is a demanding, draining and all-consuming vocation. The Jehovah’s Witness case leaves Fiona visibly drained. The emotional toil it causes her might be attributable to the domestic strife she is experiencing simultaneously at home – but that is probably the point. We tend to see the justice system as an institution, but it is made up of human cogs, who have real lives and real problems; problems which they are impossibly forced to set aside to fulfil their roles as the face of justice.

The point is re-enforced in one of the few scenes in the film that trumps its counterpart in the book: Fiona Maye attending a judicial swearing in. Robed and wigged, surrounded by her colleagues in the same attire, she sits in the audience to watch her new peers take the oath of loyalty to the Crown. They swear to serve Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, and to try cases without emotion and without attachment. In their strange costumes, swearing allegiances to higher authority, there’s an obvious analogy to be made with the practices of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, whose unquestioning devotion to their elders was forced into focus in the cross-examination of the father. Back in the hospital scene, the boy had asked Fiona Mayer what she believes in; she did not respond directly. But as the camera rests on Emma Thompson’s face, we see Fiona questioning her higher authority – the law – at the same time as the boy is questioning his.

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Tagged: Family Law, Human Rights, Media, Medical Law & Ethics, Review

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