The Children Act: Bearing witness to moral dilemma

Fionn Whitehead in ‘The Children Act’, adapted by Ian McEwan from his own novel, which deals with the refusal of a Jehovah’s Witness to accept a blood transfusion, thus risking his life.

‘The Children Act’ is this summer’s second film to deal with Jehovah’s Witnesses and the refusal of followers to accept blood transfusions — a cornerstone of their faith, writes Esther McCarthy

YOU wait ages for a movie that deals with the topic of Jehovah’s Witnesses and their faith and then two come along

together. Just weeks after Apostasy — written and directed by a former witness — became one of the most acclaimed English dramas of the year, we see similar themes explored in The Children Act.

Both films centre on a cornerstone of the faith — the refusal to accept blood transfusions, even at a risk to life.

Adapted by Ian McEwan from his own novel, The Children Act centres on a top family law judge (Emma Thompson) tasked with making divisive and difficult decisions across a wide range of cases. Amid personal difficulties at home, she must pass judgment on the case of a teenage boy, Adam (Fionn Whitehead), who is refusing a life-saving blood transfusion on religious principle.

For top director Richard Eyre, the movie offered the sort of moral dilemmas that appeal to him when it comes to choosing projects.

“I’ve known Ian for over 30 years, we live near each other, see a lot of each other. When he was writing the novel, he said to me: ‘I think there’s a film here, I’ll send you the novel when I’ve finished writing it’,” said Eyre. “He told me roughly what the novel was about and I was intrigued. First of all, the fact that it was a woman judge in the family division, and secondly because he mentioned a Jehovah’s Witness and the kind of absolutism of their creed.

“He then sent me the novel in manuscript and I was completely taken by it, I found it very moving. I found the way in which the issues of the marriage wound in with the judicial issues and the matter of life and death. The agony of the boy’s decision and the agony of her sense of loss. I love stories which have a sense of moral debate in them which is expressed in a way that’s very human, expressed through character.”

In the film, it’s initially unclear whether the connection between the judge and the young man is sexual or otherwise. For Eyre, who previously directed hits such as Notes on a Scandal and Iris, it was part of the appeal.

“I found that fascinating. I still can’t say whether her feelings for him are more of a surrogate son or in some way sexually attracted. He’s enthralled by her.

“You can’t quite say what is happening there.” The reliably good Emma Thompson is winning some career-best reviews for her role as this complicated woman. “She’s a very rare actress because she’s super intelligent, super articulate, highly witty, yet she doesn’t wear that on her sleeve in the sense of providing a performance that is a commentary, rather than being the thing itself,” said Eyre. “She’s got great charisma, yet she completely subsumes her personality in the character of Fiona.

“We spent quite a lot of time, the two of us, talking to women judges in the planning stages. Emma was very taken by them and impressed by them, and she felt a kind of duty to make sure they were properly represented.”

Young English actor Fionn Whitehead, who plays the teenager, Adam, at the heart of the case, also underwent research in an effort to understand the mindset of a person who would refuse a potentially life-saving transfusion. Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that the Bible prohibits ingesting blood in an interpretation of scripture.

“I explored it in my own time in quite a big way,” the actor told me. “I did a lot of research and went to a Jehovah’s Witness meeting. Went in and watched all the people, how they behaved, listened to the teachings. One of the things that stuck with me was how welcoming they are, and how kind and loving and supporting. The minute I met them they took me in. It makes it quite easy to see how people can get so taken in by it, so involved with them. There’s a very family feel.

“I think it was definitely important to understand the core conflict that Adam is going through. Empathise with his mindset and understand his motivations. That’s always really important.”

Richard Eyre, director of ‘The Children Act’, and Emma Thompson, who stars as the film’s judge.

It’s been a huge year for Whitehead, who was picked from relative obscurity to play a lead role in Christopher Nolan’s Second World War epic, Dunkirk, last summer.

“I went up like anyone else to audition for it. It was amazing that he took a chance on me, it was a big risk on their part, and I’m incredibly happy that he did.

“They set-dressed this whole stretch of beach, recreated The Mole, did all these things to really recreate the world around us. When it came down to it it was easy because it was a matter of reacting to your surroundings.”

As well as his many film credits, Richard Eyre is one of Britain’s most successful theatre directors, with several credits including Hamlet with Daniel Day-Lewis, Richard III with Ian McKellen, and Mary Poppins on Broadway. He agrees that many theatre directors struggle with moving into film.

“They’re very, very different mediums and in some ways the theatre is the worst possible apprenticeship for working in film. The thing that’s in common is the raw material, actors and story.” So why do some theatre directors falter in film? “Take a crude example. In the theatre you have one point of view.

“The audience are watching people on the stage. They have to make a sort of imaginative contribution, because it’s theatre, it’s a metaphoric, poetic medium, and they supply the missing bits.

“Film is much more literal. Film, at every single moment, the director’s in the position of manipulating the point of view. ‘This is what you’re looking at. This is what you’re hearing’. In film, you’ve got three totally different stages — you’ve got the preparation with one group of people, the shooting and then the editing which is another universe altogether.”

In a recent interview, Eyre was asked about ‘taking it easy’ and responded: “Why would I? I’m only 75!” He laughs at the memory.

“That’s how I feel! And I’ll go along until I drop. My model is a conductor called Georg Solti. I worked with Georg when he was 82. Incredible energy. He died three years later — he played a couple of sets of tennis in the afternoon, had wine at dinner, went to sleep and died. He was working right up to the last moment. There’s a brilliant Yeats poem which ends: ‘Proud, open-eyed and laughing to the tomb’ and that’s how I hope to go on.”

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