“And the Oscar goes to”… (or should go to)… “Dame Emma Thompson”.
Given my last review was for “The Equalizer 2“, where Denzel was judge, jury and executioner, it’s a nice seque that this film follows the life of a senior judge in London’s Law Courts: trying to do the justice job, but in the right way!
Judge Maye (Thompson) is a childless wife to her loving husband Jack (Tucci), but is also a workaholic. This is driving the long-term couple to the point of infidelity: a fact the ever-focused Fiona – whose life, to her, probably feels to be in a perfect if selfish equilibrium – is oblivious to. With Fiona’s intense but comfortable world about to cave in around her, her increasing stress is not helped by the latest case she is working on: one where Adam ( Fionn Whitehead from “Dunkirk“), a Jehovah’s Witness boy and a minor, is refusing on religious grounds the blood transfusion he desperately needs to fight his leukaemia. Fiona’s decisions in the months ahead go much further than a simple judgement on the case.
Two acting giants – one born in London; one born in New York – tower over this Ian McEwan adaptation like leviathons. I bandy around the phrase “national treasure” a lot in these reviews but, if there was a league table of national treasures, Emma Thompson would qualify for the Champion’s League every season. Here she is simply breathtakingly powerful in the lead role of Judge Fiona Maye, exhibiting such extremes of emotion that you would like to think that an Oscar nomination would be assured. (However, before I run out and put a £10 bet on her to win, the film is such a small British film that unfortunately both a nomination and a win seem unlikely! THIS IS A CRIME! So I have added the tag #OscarBuzz to this post…. please share and lobby people, lobby! Perhaps at the very least we can hope for some BAFTA recognition).
Sometimes a masterly lead performance can make a co-star performance seem unbalanced, but no such danger here. Stanley Tucci makes a perfect acting foil for Thompson: if he were a wine he would be described as “exasperation, frustration, compassion with strong notes of respect”. And he carries it off with perfection.
This is an incredibly intelligent film, working on so many different levels and subject to so much interpretation. Fiona’s feelings for the troubled teenager feel more maternal than sexual, but when those feelings become returned and escalate the whole piece develops a queasily oedipal quality. Many films have focused on illicit attractions between teacher and pupil, but here lies a new variation, with Maye fighting against her best professional insticts to ‘do the right thing’. “I’m frightened of myself” she eventually wails to a colleague.
In his opening hospital scenes*, Adam seems completely other-wordly compared to a typical teen and this comes across as utterly false. That is, until you consider the oddness of his family background and Jehovah’s Witness upbringing. As such, the film just about gets away with it. Whitehead does a good job with a difficult role. (*It took my wife to point out – after the film, thank goodness – the similarities between this hospital scene and a famous guitar-playing scene in “Airplane” at which I dissolved into guffaws!).
If you’ve been in a court, you’ll know that there is something regal and magical about a judge in full regalia entering a packed courtroom. So it’s unusual to see the view from the other side of the door… a non-descript office corridor and a non-descript door. Helping the judge on this side of the door is her PA Nigel, played by the brilliant Jason Watkins: a TV regular (e.g. “Line of Duty”, “W1A”) but seen far less at the movies.
As a story of obsessive fixation, it borders on McEwan’s disturbing earlier work “Enduring Love”. And it has the potential to go in lots of interesting directions as a sort of bonkers platonic love triangle (“He wants to live with US?” splutters Tucci). Where the story does end up going was not particularly to my liking, and a melodramatic concert scene was – for me – a little overdone. However it does give rise to a scene (the ‘sopping wet’ scene) that shows Thompson at her most brilliant: if she DID get Oscar or BAFTA nominated then this will be her pre-announcement snippet.
It’s a great film for showcasing acting talent, but beware: it’s not got a “lot of laffs”. As such it’s very much a “Father Ted film” that takes a while to recover from.
Fad Rating: FFFF.