Emma Thompson plays God with convincing aplomb in “The Children Act,” an adaptation of Ian McEwan’s 2014 novel that fairly bursts with ideas about right and wrong, head and heart, and — pardon the expression — sense and sensibility (not to mention the myriad contradictions those terms contain). As London judge Fiona Maye, Thompson is all crisp rationality and swift, no-nonsense alacrity. As the movie opens, she’s delivering a literally Solomonic verdict regarding a pair of conjoined twins, reminding the parents and their lawyers that “this court is a court of law, not of morals.”
Another contradiction. And one that will come into even more high-stakes play when Fiona hears a case regarding a 17-year-old leukemia patient whose Jehovah’s Witness parents are refusing a blood transfusion that he will probably die without. When Fiona goes to visit the boy, she discovers a bright, seductively romantic adolescent who instantly bonds with her over literature, music and intellectual curiosity.
The legal parameters of Fiona’s decision are relatively straightforward; the title of “The Children Act” refers to the court’s responsibility to consider the welfare of minors its paramount concern. But Fiona’s decision forms only one strand of the story’s provocative tangle of motives and misgivings. For one thing, latent tensions in her marriage to Jack (Stanley Tucci), a classics professor, are surfacing in unexpected ways, offering another lens on Fiona’s avoidance of emotionalism, which has been one of her professional strengths. Once she delivers her verdict, its implications — the responsibility and expectations it confers — make themselves felt in increasingly unsettling encounters.
Adapted by McEwan and directed by Richard Eyre (“Notes on a Scandal”) with economy and style, “The Children Act” feels utterly of a piece with the original book: urbane, understated, handsomely realized and impeccably interpreted by a cast of superb actors. When Fiona debates morality with Adam — sensitively portrayed by Fionn Whitehead — their two-handed banter unfolds like “A Man for All Seasons” staged in an ICU. As the plot thickens with notions of belief, spiritual discipline and the limits of even the most rigorous logic, Thompson maintains the unnerving sang-froid that Fiona has used to keep dangerous feelings at bay, cracking barely perceptibly as that strategy begins to strain and finally crumble.
Accompanied, appropriately enough, by Bach piano pieces, “The Children Act” is an unmitigated pleasure to watch and listen to, primarily as a showcase for Thompson’s incomparable gifts as an actress. She leans into the film’s rare but relief-giving moments of gin-dry humor, often involving Fiona’s fastidious clerk Nigel (Jason Watkins). The story finally morphs into an old-fashioned melodrama, but one that feels intensely of this time and place, as atavistic certainties contend with modern relativism, and issues of autonomy and choice collide with patronizing notions of the greater good. True to McEwan’s literary vision, “The Children Act” allows all of its characters their dignity and good faith. Its greatest achievement, to quote Jack (quoting Flaubert), is the fixity of its pensive gaze.
R. At the Avalon and Cinema Arts. Contains a sexual reference. 105 minutes.