Movies

Emma Thompson of The Children Act on the importance of making films that have good scripts

Movie audiences may see Emma Thompson as an actor – Hogwarts’
Professor Trelawney; Miss Kenton in The Remains of the Day;
Nanny McPhee – but it’s worth remembering that the two-time
Oscar winner has only one trophy for acting, in Howards End;
the other is for adapting Sense and Sensibility. So it should
be no surprise that when a script comes her way, it’s a
scribe’s sensibility she brings to bear on it.

“The first thing I do is see what’s the writing like,” she says
at the Toronto International Film Festival – a year ago, mind –
where the film The Children Act had its world premiere. “And
that’s what I always respond to. And it doesn’t really matter
about anything else, and sometimes the films I choose don’t
work, but the writing’s always good.”

A film has many pieces. “But that is the first piece of the
jigsaw puzzle for me because I know that a bad script will not
make a good film. Sometimes a good script will make a bad film,
but a bad script will very rarely make a good film. I can’t
think of one.”

The Children Act, adapted by Ian McEwan from his own novel, is
the story of British judge Fiona Maye (Thompson), who must rule
whether to force a 17-year-old Jehovah’s Witness (Dunkirk’s
Fionn Whitehead) to have a life-saving blood transfusion that
neither he nor his parents wants. As she gets to know the young
subject of the case, we also watch Fiona’s crumbling marriage
to Jack (Stanley Tucci) and an ironically more stable
partnership with her personal assistant (Jason Watkins) in one
of those work relationships that seems like a marriage.

“This one was just a no-brainer,” says Thompson about taking
the part, “because it’s Ian McEwan, who I love, and I’d read
the book already. I’d never worked with Richard [Eyre, the
director] but I’ve known him a long time so I was excited to
work with him. And it was a fantastic part. Not only her own
complexities, but I was very excited to find out about family
law.”

Thompson spent hours in family court, watching female judges.
“They were extraordinarily inspiring to me, and it was their
gravitas and dignity that really inspired the way that Fiona
conducts herself.”

The key attribute she learned was their ability to listen.
“it’s a wonderful thing to be asked to play, because I think
acting is listening really; it’s not doing. And there was a lot
of listening. And of course there were a lot of very
beautifully calibrated judgments that Fiona delivers in speech,
but the real thing that got to me was how much listening she
got to do.”

The story deals with the intersection of religion and medical
science, and Thompson has not hidden her religious views, or
lack thereof. “I wasn’t baptized or Christened, and not raised
by religious people at all. My mom and dad wouldn’t have said
they were atheists but there were at the very least agnostics.”
A pause, then: “Dad probably was an atheist, actually.”

And while she understands the positives of religious thought,
and admires the tenets of humanism and Buddhism, she finds the
organizations troubling. “I think there are many other ways to
uphold our spirituality and our ethics, and I think we need to
find new ways of expressing our ethical code. A lot of stuff
we’ve been using is way out of date; it’s just not adequate to
our needs.”

The Children Act opens Sept. 14 in select cities, including
Ottawa and Toronto.

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