Emma Thompson gives her best performance in years in “The Children Act,” a gripping drama that asks tough questions about law and faith, while examining the limits of personal freedoms and the role of the state.
The adaptation of Ian McEwan’s acclaimed 2014 novel features Thompson as Judge Fiona Maye, a workaholic whose equilibrium is shattered when her husband tells her he wants to have an affair. At the same time, she must decide whether or not to allow a young Jehovah’s Witness named Adam (Fionn Whitehead) to adhere to the tenets of his religion and refuse a life-saving medical procedure. Her conversation with Adam in his hospital room leaves her unmoored, and provides Thompson with a chance to deploy all the tools in her acting arsenal.
“The Children Act” premieres at the Toronto Film Festival, where it is looking for distribution. Thompson spoke with Variety about the film’s message, Hollywood’s superhero obsession, and the virtues and demerits of Netflix.
Did you read McEwan’s novel?
I did. I always read Ian’s books as soon as they come out, and I loved the book. I loved its clarity and its limpid simplicity.
Is this a story about humanism versus fundamentalism with Fiona on the side of fact and reason, and Adam and his family espousing an extreme religious view?
That’s not the first thing that would come to mind. There’s a very particular version of religion involved, and I’m not sure that what Fiona is bringing to bear is necessarily humanism. She’s someone who is interested in the rule of law. It’s a very particular form of power and knowledge and expertise. That’s what I was exploring. The dichotomy was more about what it is to be human and what it is to exercise the law.
What draws Fiona to Adam?
She arrives at the hospital and Adam is not at all what she expects. She expects somebody who is not as arresting, not as intelligent and cogent, and that takes her aback. He’s not ground down by dogma. She has to face her own prejudices and the myriad of responses she would have to a young person choosing to die. As a human being, who has not had any children, she’s vulnerable when she comes across Adam. He has this unspoiled quality. The objectivity she’s supposed to have in place is a shield, and he exposes chinks in her armor.
You have a scene in Adam’s hospital room about half-way through the film, where you go through a range of emotions. You start off very formal and gradually your guard comes down. How did you approach that scene?
It was such a subtle scene. It was like being in a concerto with just two people playing all the instruments. What’s going on requires the brush strokes to be delicate. It starts chilly and forma and all leads to a genuine burst of merriment and the release of tension.
Given how artistic and intelligent Adam is, it almost seems like child abuse to have raised him in a belief system like that? I mean he was indoctrinated. He didn’t get a say.
I do absolutely believe it is a form of abuse. Though, I don’t think you can bring a child up in any belief system without finding out along the way that there’s some level of brainwashing. Jehovah’s Witnesses are brought up in an extreme set of beliefs. I’m an atheist, but I’m spiritual, but I do believe we’ve lost our human connections at some level. There are high levels of suicidal inclinations, depression and mental illness.
In what ways are people brainwashed?
In a funny sort of way we’re absolutely all brainwashed. Growing up for me in a straight white heterosexual world, I was certainly taught not to question things.
You are appearing in Noah Baumbach’s “The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected),” which Netflix is releasing. Do you mind having a film released without a traditional studio launch?
Noah is an auteur and an auteur wants their work to be seen on the big screen, so that was tricky. It was hard for Noah. At the same time, Ben [Stiller] and Adam [Sandler] and Dustin [Hoffman], we all appreciate working with an excellent writer and director. That kind of work is not always widely available. You have to be in a place with an independent movie theater — that’s alright if you’re in New York or L.A. or other cultural capitals, but in some places that’s not an option.
These small films are difficult to make and finance. So we’re all grateful that Netflix is making them and allowing millions more people to see them. In the best of both worlds, I think there should be some model where they’re in cinemas, as they were meant to be seen, and where they can also be accessed by disabled people and people who wouldn’t have access to them.
Studios don’t seem to be making films like “The Children Act.” What happened?
Well, they’re not making them in English. There are a lot of foreign movies like this, what was that Iranian film, “A Separation,” that was wonderful. It was two ordinary people coming up against a system of law. So these films are being made in terms of world cinema.
As far as I can see the films in English, there are few of any depth, weight, and complexity. There are lots of Marvel movies and remakes of old Marvel movies and Transformers.
Do you like any comic book films?
I really loved “Wonder Woman.” I thought it was witty and hopeful and delicately done and wonderfully acted. I did enjoy it so much, and I was not expecting to and came out feeling happy
What did you like about Wonder Woman as a character?
I liked that she had this very unfussed response to the men. She came from a matriarchal society and didn’t have a problem with alpha males. That’s not at all a typical role model for girls. She did have that incredible beauty. I’d have preferred if she were short, squat and Welsh.
Would you appear in a “Wonder Woman” sequel?
Absolutely, I want wings and a big whip.