The Two Reviews: The Children Act and Vice

The Children Act (2018, FilmNation Entertainment and BBC Films)
Directed by Richard Eyre. Featuring Emma Thompson, Stanley Tucci, Fionn Whitehead and Ben Chaplin. Based on a novel by Ian McEwan.

This English-set drama follows the traumatic life choices surrounding religious objections to blood transfusions by Jehovah Witnesses. Seventeen year-old Adam (Whitehead) is dying and only a blood transfusion can save him. His parents – and seemingly Adam himself – refuse the transfusion on religious grounds. Court Judge Fiona Maye (Thompson) listens to the impassioned but sorrowful pleas of Adam’s Jehovah Witness parents about the sanctity of the gift of life, and that blood is a spiritual gift that can only be given by God. The State argues that Adam is only seventeen and not a legal adult, and his life must be protected as a matter of law, i.e. children must be protected by the State. Judge Maye decides, unconventionally, to visit Adam in hospital to gauge his own feelings. There are a few twists and turns as the plot unwinds. No spoilers will be divulged here other than to say that much rides on the right to choose one’s own destiny versus the responsibility to protect the young and the vulnerable.

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It is based on the novel of the same name by Ian McEwan, who also wrote the script. And like other McEwan novels turned into films (Atonement, On Chesil Beach) it is absorbed in momentous life-changing events and torturous, heart-aching meaningfulness. To add to the drama of life decisions, Judge Maye is going through a particularly difficult time in her marriage to Jack (Tucci), and Adam develops something of an obsession about her, and behaves more like a stalker than a nauseating teenager – though he is that too. All round, the drama is heavy. And not only that, I found Adam to be a completely unlikable character. Though the acting is generally good and Thompson and Tucci are especially in tune with their characters, I cannot say that I found any of the characters appealing – not as people, nor as villains.

There is a bit of a twist at the end – the heart-wrenching moment turns back on itself, and I was thinking: ‘good, it’ll end soon’. This is not a terrible film, but it is a pointless one. I think the thing that British film-makers should heed is not to make a film adaptation of a ponderous (and oh, so meaningful) Ian McEwan novel because they just don’t work. To be fair though, there are some worthy moments, and some passages to contemplate: and I liked that the parents were tormented by a decision they had never hoped to make. It was certainly not black and white. The director and cast did a decent job with the narrative put before them. But the problem with the film is the narrative. It wanders from heartache to frustration to emotionally-charged trauma in an attempt to create complexity, but it ends up being a monotonous ride through a world without light. I could not help but think that this is classic McEwan: looking for yet another nuanced piece of heartache that has life-changing consequences…until the whole world sinks into an abyss of depression and self-indulgent darkness devoid even of rum & raisin chocolate, Led Zeppelin and season 3 of Blackadder. I’m going to cry now!

Reviewed by Robin Stevens – Rated 2/5

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Vice (2018, Plan B Entertainment and Gary Sanchez Productions)
Directed by Adam McKay. Featuring Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, Alison Pill, Tyler Perry and Jesse Plemons

Vice is a political comic-drama and biographical sketch of the rise of Dick Cheney, the Vice President of the USA during the George W. Bush administration (2001-2009). It is smart, funny and a little disturbing. It follows career politician Dick Cheney (Bale) in his drive to make a mark on US and global politics, and ultimately to be the most powerful Vice President in the country’s history. It is a dissection of the grab for power, and searing critique of those advisors who, contemptuous of the rules of fair play and indifferent to the lives of others, help him get there.

The film begins with a few wayward and drunken escapades by the young Cheney, and his then-girlfriend (later-to-be wife) Lynne Vincent (Adams). She confronts him later, telling him to get his act together and make something of himself or she’ll be gone. Thus begins Cheney’s slow-cooking climb to the top of political power. On the way he observes and absorbs the political maneuvering of an entire cohort of seedy and ruthless White House politicians, starting with Richard Nixon and ending in his collaboration and manipulation of a politically naïve George W. Bush (Rockwell).

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This is an involved film, with plenty of political machinations going on. It could be a hard slog, but it is helped along by the friendly narration of Kurt (Plemons), an everyday American. The ensemble cast is exceptional. There is not a single weak performance by any member of this large cast of players. Steve Carrell’s Donald Rumsfeld, Cheney’s mentor, is completely convincing, as is Sam Rockwell’s inhabiting of George W. Bush, a weak political figure. Amy Adams, as she has proved so many times, is a consummate actor. Her performance as the supportive partner Lynne to Christian Bale’s phenomenal transformation into Cheney is inspiring. The editing is superb – truly superb. It has to be highlighted as a significant contribution to shaping this film. It is at times startling, giving a vibrancy to what could otherwise be a tedious monologue of political intrigue. The camera work, set design, soundtrack and all technical crafts are top-notch. Make-up is extraordinary. The script – the script is a work of genius; politically insightful, punchy, and punctuated by some spot-on comic moments. And despite its searing critique of Cheney and his crowd of villains, the script is nuanced and paints Cheney and his family as real people, capable of love and feeling pain. And I liked the occasional and unexpected surreal fair-tale moments inserted into the film. I can’t say here, but they are smiling moments.

Are there any drawbacks to this film? Not really, but it is longish. It covers a heavy list of political topics and events, and it will not be to everyone’s taste. Perhaps it could have been cut-back a little. But don’t walk away as the credits start to roll! – There is another punchy-comic scene that comments on the film itself. This film was written and directed by Adam McKay, who normally writes lighter comic films and TV scripts, but his previous political film The Big Short (2015, also with Bale and Carell) demonstrates that he can write detailed political scripts better than most. I should also point out this is the third Adams/Bale lead-role partnership (previously The Fighter in 2010 and American Hustle in 2013), and they work off each other superbly.

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In addition to a long list of actors in the film, it is produced by Brad Pitt, Will Ferrell and others. So apart from an excellent script (perhaps the best script in a few years), good direction, superb editing, brilliant cast of actors and high standards in every other area of cinema craft, this film is a great collaboration of a who’s who of Hollywood stars, making it an intelligent, say-it-straight, commentary on contemporary American politics.

Reviewed by Robin Stevens – Rated 4.5/5

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