Whether being fearlessly funny or deeply dramatic, Emma Thompson — the British star of such hits as Sense and Sensibility, Saving Mr. Banks and Love Actually — has a knack for making us think. In The Children Act (Sept. 14), she plays Fiona Maye, a family court judge making life-and-death decisions about children’s lives.
The film is about love, intimacy and moral responsibility. But is it ultimately Fiona’s personal failing that she cares too much — or is that a necessity of her sometimes thankless job?
Thompson: The film is about so many things — justice and the system of the law, how to maintain empathy whilst working within a system that demands you remove your emotional responses whilst maintaining a marriage when work hours are insanely demanding. ... The film asks the question: Is that her failing or the failing of the system? Why have we created systems of justice that demand we surgically remove our human responses from our decision-making? The common assumption is that law must be above all such feelings, but is that simply a way of making it easier to wield? The film questions the morality of the law as much as the morality of the individuals in the story. It asks whether there is a better way to frame justice.
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How does Fiona maintain her stamina and passion, given the life-and-death decisions she must make? Does she recognize the costs to her personal life?
Thompson: Fiona’s job is to try and make good decisions that will bring about the most benefits for the most people. In the family courts this is often terrifyingly hard. Children’s lives are at stake, people’s happiness, health, homes, every part of human existence is called into stark light and judged. All judges must have extraordinary stamina. There is no other way to support the workload. ...
Fiona has been swallowed — to a great extent — by the demands made upon her. It has become more and more difficult to separate herself from the enormous sense of duty that she has toward her office. There are very few women in her position, and she has to do it better than the men in her field. She has no recourse to the easy, entitled world of masculine “old boy” network clubbery that provides support to the men in her position. They have been born to it and often brought up with far less emphasis upon the need to feel for the clients. It’s hardly a surprise that her relationships (all of them) suffer.
Is there a message that you’re hoping viewers will take away from this film?
Thompson: I hope people will enjoy the complexity of a story about the very edges of human emotion — the margins of our lives where the real drama occurs — inside the heart and the brain. The minute decisions we make every day build up until we find ourselves walled in. The film makes me hopeful about human emotional agency. About the trap of systems based on intellectual ability and the courage to climb out of those traps. About the exquisite nature of instinct.