Novel by Ian McEwan (2014), screenplay by Ian McEwan, directed by Richard Eyre (2017)

Contains spoilers — please don’t read if you’ld prefer not to know the plot

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“London. Trinity term one week old. Implacable June weather.”

So The Children Act opens, in a conscious direct echo of Bleak House[1], Dickens’s famous novel set in legal London in the early 19th century. But instead of the Lord Chancellor sitting in judgment in Lincoln’s Inn Hall, at the very heart of the primeval fog sweeping in from London’s outskirts on the Essex marshes and the Kentish heights, the opening of The Children Act places its judge, Fiona Maye, at home in her flat in Gray’s Inn on a Sunday evening, shoes off and lying on a chaise longue, an uncompleted draft judgment to hand, from which she has been shaken by “a bad moment with her husband.”

There are slender parallel threads between the two novels. Near the beginning of Bleak House there is a glimpse of the judge outside the courtroom, as a man, not a bewigged cypher, face-to-face with young litigants, in an era long before the Children Act 1989. In his private rooms, the Lord Chancellor meets the two nineteen-year old orphans (still children in the eyes of the law until the age of majority was reduced from 21 to 18 in 1969), beautiful Ada Clare and “handsome light-hearted” Richard Carstone, who are “the wards in Jarndyce”, to discuss and approve an arrangement for them to live with their guardian at Bleak House. Dickens, through his narrator Esther Summerson, describes the Lord Chancellor admiring Ada’s beauty, and speaking with Richard “not seated, but standing, and altogether with more ease and less ceremony- as if he still knew, though he was Lord Chancellor, how to go straight to the candour of a boy.” Later, Ada and Richard fall in love and marry, before Richard dies, near the end of the novel, in destitution, his hopes blighted and life destroyed by his misplaced optimism in the Jarndyce case.

But whilst Dickens’s narrative turns outwards from the court room, drawing in a vast array of individual lives and scenes to show the interminable and futile Jarndyce litigation in Chancery as a metaphor for pervasive wrongs that touch the highest and the lowest in society, The Children Act is largely an introspective novel. There is no spontaneous combustion, no Cockney inquests in pubs off Chancery Lane, no narrator other than the author, only a few central characters, and a taut, precise time span of a few months in the late summer and autumn of 2012. The novel turns its intense gaze on the conflicting strands of the “eminent life”[2] and the intimate life of 59 year old High Court Family Division judge Fiona Maye — “An abandoned fifty-nine-year-old woman, in the infancy of old age, just learning to crawl” — a striking metaphor for a woman whose interior monologue as she walks from her home in Gray’s Inn, through Lincoln’s Inn to her court in the Royal Courts of Justice is paced by her knowledgeably playing Bach’s C minor keyboard partita in her head. The conflict is principally narrated through a hearing, a judgment and its aftermath in a case closely drawn from life[3]: that of a seventeen year old boy, Adam Henry, who, like his parents, is a Jehovah’s Witness, and being so refuses a blood transfusion, without which he will shortly die from leukaemia. The case comes before her urgently to determine whether or not refusal of the transfusion would be in Adam’s best interests. After hearing from Adam’s parents and other witnesses and their advocates in court, Fiona decides to make an “unorthodox excursion” to visit Adam at his hospital bedside herself. Their remarkable conversation, in which, like Dickens’s Lord Chancellor she goes “straight to the candour of a boy”, asking him what he would think if she were to override his wishes, with both of them unexpectedly laughing at his answer “I’d think My Lady was an interfering busybody”, culminates in her surprising herself by singing the words to his violin rendition of Yeats’ poem of love and regret for youthful choices: “Down By The Salley Gardens”.

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Returning to her court, Fiona rules that Adam should receive the blood transfusion, against his and his parents’ wishes, holding that “his welfare is better served by all of life and love that lie ahead of him”. Their subsequent encounters — he seeks her out, for to him she is “my Lady”, not just as she is addressed in court, but as an object of worship and yearning — and his death, are the pivot for Fiona to examine her life outside the courtroom and beyond the small topography of the Inns of Court and Royal Courts of Justice by which the novel — and her life — is largely bound.

Adam’s appearance in Fiona’s life coincides with the temporary disappearance of her formerly “loyal and kind” husband, Jack, in pursuit of an affair. Adam’s role is both unsettling and ambiguous. He is not a substitute for the man to whom she has long, but at an increasing emotional distance, been married. Nor for one of the adult children that she and Jack might have had, and whose absence she is acutely aware of in the moment of Jack’s disappearance, had she not so single-mindedly pursued her career, even comparing her swearing-in ceremony as a judge to entering a convent -“she belonged to the law as some women who had once been brides of Christ.” One of the recurrent themes of Fiona’s introspection on her personal life is the sacrifice of irresponsibility and later, of intimacy, that her dedication to her work has demanded since she was a teenager, recognising herself as:

“A woman in her sixtieth year who had risked nothing in life beyond a few reckless episodes in Newcastle a long time ago.”

Adam’s unexpected appearance in present-day Newcastle, whilst Fiona is dining at the Judges’ Lodgings on a circuit visit, and the ambiguous kiss with which they part, is the culmination of this tension between the “eminent life” and the regret for the lost “few reckless episodes . . . a long time ago.” Fiona’s fear that their kiss has been seen and will expose her to a charge of judicial misconduct is rapidly succeeded by the novel’s culmination: hearing of Adam’s death a few weeks later, and learning that shortly after reaching the age of eighteen he had decided for himself to refuse a blood transfusion on recurrence of his illness. His death overwhelms her with a sense of responsibility for it, a consciousness that “her transgression lay beyond the reach of any disciplinary panel” and a realisation that her responsibility for decisions of life and death is not confined to her court room and written judgments. The novel ends in tentative reunion with her husband:

“They lay face to face in the semi-darkness and while the great rain-cleansed city beyond the room settled to its softer nocturnal rhythms and their marriage uneasily resumed, she told him in a steady quiet voice of her shame, of the sweet boy’s passion for life, and her part in his death.”

In Fiona’s character and working life as a High Court judge, Ian McEwan presents a meticulously-observed portrait of the contemporary “metropolitan liberal elite” before that phrase acquired its particularly pejorative slant. His 2005 novel “Saturday” is similarly painstaking and detailed in its character of the neurosurgeon Henry Perowne. Both fictions were based on close observation and discussion with members of the respective professions portrayed. Retired Court of Appeal judge Sir Alan Ward, who is a friend of Ian McEwan, read the first draft of The Children Act, and has spoken in a newspaper interview of the case on which Adam’s story is based. Fiona’s professional world is all equally scrupulously rendered in the film of the novel. There is nothing jarring in the figures, faces, accents and places that fill its scenes to anyone daily familiar with the Royal Courts of Justice and Inns of Court — indeed it has been praised by Melanie Phillips in The Times (£) as “an act of homage to the justice system”. Above all, in the film, Emma Thompson, as Fiona Maye, entirely inhabits her fictional personality — her movements, gestures and expressions as closely observed as McEwan’s writing, and finely tuned to convey as much as possible of her character’s busy interior monologue and of her life of relentless intellectual work— things inherently very difficult to dramatise. Inevitably, all the other parts are smaller than hers, but Fionn Whitehead is equally convincing as Adam, the child at the edge of becoming a man, as is Jason Watkins as Fiona Maye’s judicial clerk.

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Emma Thompson as Mrs Justice Fiona Maye in The Children Act

Both the novel, which even takes its title from the name of a statute, and the film, treat the work of the High Court judge -the decisions that are made in the family courts, and the task of writing narrative judgments, with immense seriousness, and on an ambitious scale — perhaps over-ambitious. Details of facts and issues of several decisions with real-life counterparts are woven into the narrative - the life or death of conjoined twins, the education of children of ultra-religious Jewish parents, parental abduction to a foreign country, the protracted divorces of the wealthy. Some others are touched on in passing — the wrongful conviction on the basis of flawed probability evidence of a mother for causing the cot deaths of two of her children, and the conviction and imprisonment of young men on joint enterprise assault charges. Inevitably, perhaps, for someone who habitually reads judgments and has to keep up to date with the law, these parts of the narrative are less absorbing, both on the page and on the screen, than the story of Adam’s case and where it leads outside the court room. And since The Children Act was published in 2014, bitterly contested best interests decisions in 2017 and 2018 about the withdrawal of life support from very young children have been fixed in public consciousness and controversy. Both novel and film are more reverential towards the judge and towards best interests judgments, than much of the public discussion of these recent cases has been. The film vividly portrays some of the intense public interest, in a swirling crowd of reporters and photographers at the entrance of the Royal Courts of Justice, and the novel describes how, following Fiona’s decision to permit the separation of conjoined twins, leading to the inevitable death of the weaker “… there began to arrive in small pastel-coloured envelopes the venomous thoughts of the devout. They were of the view that both children should have been left to die and were not pleased by her decision. Some deployed abusive language, some said they longed to do her physical harm. A few of those claimed to know where she lived.” But McEwan’s account of the “screaming headline” and “noisy world” strikingly understates the present reality of such threats and abuse of judges, immediately and widely posted on social media, together with sinister pictures, such as those of the words above the gates of Auschwitz altered to read “In Your Best Interests”, as it does the role of activists and populist politicians in these cases, and of the “armies” of supporters of young parents who cling vehemently to a belief in greater hope for their children in hospital than medicine has found to exist, and in their right, not that of the judge, to make life or death decisions for them.

Although the ending of novel and film are identical in their essence, and intensely moving, portraying Fiona’s inconsolable sadness, guilt and sense of lost love following Adam’s death, the film makes some changes to the closing narrative, introducing a final meeting and parting between them. The novel ends where it began, with Fiona and Jack in their flat in Gray’s Inn, but the film takes a wider visual sweep, from the hillside suburban cemetery in south London where Adam is newly buried to the distant city below. Perhaps it was this image, or both the image of Adam’s grave, and the singing of Yeats’s “Down by the Salley Gardens” as an unplanned encore to Fiona and her barrister friend’s customary recital at the Gray’s Inn Christmas Revels immediately before she learns of Adam’s death, that made me think of another literary echo that I hadn’t discerned on first reading the book — of James Joyce’s long short story “The Dead”, written and set in pre-First World War Dublin, and itself memorably filmed by John Huston and released posthumously in 1987. As with the closing pages of “The Children Act” the story is set in an evening of Christmas revels, in a long-standing tradition of prosperous hospitality and entertainment offered to their family and friends by two music teacher aunts, seen through the eyes of their favourite nephew, Gabriel Conroy, who makes a speech of tribute to them. Alone with his wife Gretta after the party, first intimate and then distanced from her by her own reflections prompted by a performance one of the traditional Irish songs at the party, Gabriel discovers the story of Gretta’s lost love for a boy in her native Galway, who died at the age of seventeen, and her grief that the boy’s love for her had led to his death. As Gretta sleeps, Gabriel reflects on this new knowledge, and the snow falls all over Ireland, and on every part of the lonely churchyard in Galway where the young man lay buried. As in “The Children Act” the noisy public occasion, the “eminent life”, is abruptly set aside for the quiet revelation of deeper private griefs and acknowledgment of personal failings, the judge’s pen put down for the last time.

A footnote. Some weeks after the film was released in the UK and USA in autumn 2018, its portrait of a judge found an unexpected reflection in real life. In The Children Act, Fiona recognises how the absence of recklessness in her adolescence has been part of what has made her impeccable career as a judge possible, whilst at the same time deepening her momentary temptation to act recklessly in middle age. In the controversy over the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh, a middle-aged judge of previous impeccable career, to the US Supreme Court, his adolescent recklessness (or its absence, as he protests), is at the forefront of the Senate’s decision and the public debate about it.

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Fionn Whitehead as Adam Henry, in the great hall of the Royal Courts of Justice, London

[1]London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather.”

[2] As Ian McEwan describes a teenage Fiona Maye imagining her future: “She made flow charts of possible lives. The trunk lines branched through university, heroic chunky husband, dreamy children, sheep farm, the eminent life. Back then she had not yet thought of the law.”

[3] Re E (A Minor) (Wardship: Medical Treatment) [1993] 1 FLR 386

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English barrister & mediator — specialising in disputed succession & decision-making for people who lack mental capacity

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