“The Children Act”: When Is Religion Child Abuse?

“The Children Act”: When Is Religion Child Abuse? September 30, 2018
Emma Thompson as Fiona Maye, in “The Children Act”

Numbers don’t lie.  Though Islamists and American fundamentalists fight it kicking and screaming, we are heading towards a post-religious world.  Naturalistic science has no need of a god hypothesis.  And despite bogus claims of the contemporary influence of the Ten Commandments, our laws reflect this historical trajectory:  contrary to the holy books, slavery is no longer OK, and women are not male property.  (Agreed, Brett Kavanaugh and the Republican Party have yet to read the memo on this latter point.)

But we are still in a tense limbo period, where science, education, and law are increasingly secular, but many of our communities’ most important social supports are still religious in nature.  The Children Act – a very good film directed by Richard Eyre, with a screenplay adapted by Ian McEwan from his novel of the same name – thoughtfully illustrates this tension.

At the heart of the film is a legal dilemma.  Fiona Maye (Emma Thompson), a family law judge in London, is called upon to hear the case of Adam Henry (Fionn Whitehead), a gravely ill teen of Jehovah’s Witness parents.  Adam has a treatable form of leukemia, but without a blood transfusion forbidden by his religion, he will soon die.

Adam is three months short of 18, Britain’s legal threshold for adulthood, but he has unequivocally refused transfusions because of his religion.  It is left to the judge to determine whether Adam has the mature capacity for this refusal, or whether the state must intervene for his welfare, in obedience to the guidelines set forth by Parliament’s Children Act of 2004.

As this case proceeds, Fiona’s personal life is a shambles.  Her meekly sad husband Jack (Stanley Tucci), frustrated by the lack of intimacy in their now 20 years of marriage, announces his intention to start an affair and moves out.

Fiona and Jack are decidedly post-religious in orientation.  As we see Fiona preside over other cases, she is a good listener, proficient and blunt, guided by reason and logic.  Jack is a literature professor, in one scene speaking wistfully of the early part of the Common Era, “before Christianity closed the western mind.”

However, in McEwan’s screenplay, they are hardly held up as paragons.  Conversations between them are clipped and brief, with kisses and touch no longer a currency in their relationship.  Regrettably for both of them, Fiona’s single-minded devotion to work has left them childless.

Richard Eyre’s direction and Andrew Dunn’s cinematography further underscore their sterile lives.  An aesthetically satisfying mix of traditional and overhead shots (the latter ironically called “God’s eye views” in the business) show their world of off-whites, blacks, and grays.  Following shots repeatedly have Fiona passing through narrow corridors that reflect her straitened existence.

Interestingly, it is Fiona’s interactions with Adam that revivify the judge and the teen.  Speculating that Adam’s religious beliefs are merely those of his parents, Fiona decides that she needs to visit Adam’s hospital bedside to hear from him directly.  Charmed by Adam’s frankness and quick intellect, Fiona laughs for the first time in the film.  Noticing his guitar, and an expert pianist herself, she even gives an impromptu music lesson before recollecting herself and getting back to business.

Fionn Whitehead as Adam Henry, in “The Children Act”

The remainder of The Children Act deals with Fiona’s judicial decision and its repercussions for Adam and his family.  Not surprisingly, considering that McEwan adapted his own novel for the screenplay, the two stick tightly together plot-wise.  Only in the final ten minutes does the film deviate and go conventionally Hollywoodish in its storytelling.

When McEwan’s book was published in 2014, it was one of my most meaningful reads for that year.  So, in the film version, I was disappointed that Jack’s character was far less developed.  However, Tucci and Thompson’s performances are as solid as we’ve come to expect from these two superb, protean actors.  Both are so emotionally restrained that when they do let down their guard, the catharsis is that much more forceful, bringing me close to tears.

The performance by Fionn Whitehead (previously in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk) as Adam is strong as well.  I liked how his waxy pallor and breathless excitement are made to resemble the Romantic heroes of the 19th Century, wasting away so beautifully from tuberculosis.  The Children Act upends this conceit, compelling us to see that the prospect of dying unnecessarily in the name of ignorant dogma is the opposite of beautiful.

If asked, most westerners today would agree that indoctrinating your offspring to refuse lifesaving medical care is a form of abuse.  The Children Act presses viewers farther in consideration of what other aspects of religion are harmful to child welfare.

We see in the film how a kid at a Kingdom Hall meeting is commended for parroting official dogma.  In Adam’s life prior to the film, we perceive how he’s been denied exposure to the arts and critical thinking.  And if Adam accepts a blood transfusion, he’ll be expelled from the main social support he’s known across his 17 years.

Are these forms of abuse as well?  And when a religious person sheds belief in a supernatural tooth fairy (as the film describes it at one point), is there an atheist, humanist community ready to step in with alternatives that give deeper, more authentic meaning to life?

3.5 out of 5 stars

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