And the wise in the end will
Often bow to the beautiful.
— Hölderlin

There is no comparing Emma Thompson.

I say this with a pronounced certainty that, should one be inclined to doubt it, is currently on screen with a heart-searing intensity in one of her most recent films: The Children Act, directed by Richard Eyre, which premiered in Toronto in 2017 and this Fall, 2018, in New York. The intensity comes in the course of the film and not where Emma Thompson cries as she does at the end — she is better at crying than most actors, inasmuch as the exigence of being incomparable does not, as she plainly understands, exclude unhinged devastation.  Emma Thompson does not sob or weep in the fashion we audiences recognize as the way of ladies of the silver screen, a single tear streaming: Thompson bawls, searing, gulping, awful moments, almost unbearable, as if she had in this fashion torn the celluloid away before our eyes: revealing the naked life beneath.

In The Children Act, carrying on as one does after public humiliation, playing one’s part as this is expected of one, the actor acts the judge acting as if nothing had happened and as everything comes undone. This time, her loathsome straying husband is in the same room, right there with her on a divan updated from Les Liasons Dangereuse, as she gulps out her — and our — desolation in the face of wretchedness, of death and the vanity of opposing this, of ideal visions and real impossibilities, abandoned to the untender comforting of that same awful spouse who left and betrayed her and had the temerity to return, insisting on his right to a new start.  But for Emma Thompson’s Judge Fiona Maye there is no new start. Unredeemable, the end is as real and as bleak as that in The Remains of the Day, too late, too little, and far worse than the savage blankness of nothing at all.

Fiona Maye in the film adaptation of Ian McEwan’s novel is a judge of the High Court, a position Thompson seems to born to play: she presides in cases of family law, issuing the judgments of the court, no irony is made of this, in matters of spousal non-support, divorce, betrayal and such like. The named case concerns the rights of minors, the story woven into the story that is a story about her undoing, as if one cannot have a judge of this calibre and not take her down. Thus the subtle misogyny of the novel, uncomprehending that a woman might be more than or have desires exceeding the desires of the central male.

There is a recurrence of the theme in McEwan’s other novel, the 2017 On Chesil Beach, full of sympathy for the incompetent, technically impotent, inarticulate husband who however he knows the names of everything knows nothing about his wife, such that he decries neither his ignorance nor his impotence but her for somehow fooling him.

The sharp focus on the males in McEwan’s stories is perhaps the most important aspect in The Children Act, which is hardly to say that Emma Thompson is effaced: she is, much rather, brought low. Determine the law in areas too lesser for male judges to concern themselves with, the case at issue in The Children Act is a dying boy, Adam Henry, played by the beautiful Fionn Whitehead.

Adam has leukaemia and by the assessment of modern medicine requires a blood transfusion opposed by himself and by his family (as Jehovah Witnesses). The issue before the court is whether to order the standard medical recommendation for a treatment that ‘might’ save him contra his resistance. This is what Judge Maye decides, after visiting the boy, a visit she makes in response to his father’s passionate plea and for the sake of her decision and which she also undertakes to explain to Adam. It goes without saying that in the course of the film, the salvation modern medicine promises fails to deliver.

It is the interaction between the two, High Court judge and boy, that gives the film its qualities of transcendence, transcending hospital rooms, transcending train journeys, even to the extent of being the one aspect that elevates the world in the desolation Fiona faces as she deals with her husband Jack’s betrayal. Thus she speaks to the boy, reminding him of what life can be. All of this is new to him and he hears her. She listens to him and this he sees. Their encounter layers possibilities of beauty and of music and of poetry that will be in their innocence, as such possibilities have to be, shattered. This dynamic about and between Emma Thompson and Fionn Whitehead constitutes the film’s intensity.

It isn’t Stanley Tucci — who for his part plays a perfectly believable husband if only because it seems to go without saying that Stanley Tucci might be the best match for Emma Thompson. Is that so? Perhaps it is. Now married (in real life as we say) to Greg Wise, Emma Thompson was once married to Kenneth Branaugh and paired with Hugh Laurie and others too, and not least, albeit platonically, we are assured, Alan Rickman, a friend throughout his lifetime who plays her partner in more than one way in more than one film.

Typically even for judges of the High Court, it is almost a rule for a woman that one can be incomparable, as Emma Thompson is, and be married to Stanley Tucci, a husband who, insisting on proper attention, despite the manifest burden of the work she must do, sulks darkly when denied. It’s a familiar story and one has little trouble believing that Emma Thompson might not want to drop everything to give him the sex he insists that he should be having (what might there be in it for her? We do not raise this question, it goes without saying as it goes without saying in On Chesil Beach). If her husband is an academic, a gratuitous cut lets us see him lecturing. If the fact of that seems unlikely (another dissonance in casting Tucci) what is not unlikely is that there might/would be a junior faculty member or postdoc or even grad student who fancies him and we do not spend a moment thinking that of course he can, if he bears the risks of it, have that student and, if he wants, Emma Thompson too.  Why ever not?  Thus Jack has his affair, after announcing his intention, and back he comes (he has to wait for her on the landing as she has, in her incomparable efficiency, and reasonably, changed the locks).

What Emma Thompson cannot have is Fionn Whitehead, not for an affair, not at all or for a moment more than a breath, as if the thought that barely flickered in our consciousness in the case described above, namely that a married spouse might have an affair with someone younger, cannot be dared, not for her.

The contrast between Tucci and Whitehead is stark: it is beauty that is foreclosed in Thompson’s case and not only must she have Tucci she must have him on the terms of his demands and not hers and indeed and in spite of his breech of their marriage.  In this way, an entire life and ideal schema, Thompson’s life not Tucci’s, is brought down, before everyone at the end of The Children Act, complete meltdown, dissolving elegant make up, formal dress: the incomparable undone.

If this married couple continues, by contrast with the ambiguity at the end of Love Actually, where the tension of not knowing the answers to the questions of love as Thompson’s figure there puts it, leaving everything “a little worse” as English code for unspeakably worse, and Alan Rickman’s caddish admission of utter foolery, nonetheless as was his wont kept the ambiguity of what might remain of his character, add to that too, their children and thus the possibility — it was a Christmas story — of some kind of redemption.

As anti-climax, the two will carry on, compromised and broken in Thompson’s case, the very sordid remains of a wasted life that has not even the promise of beauty for Fiona Maye. For Emma Thomson, it seems she cannot have even that breath of a kiss — there is no affair —, nor may the boy come and live with them, platonically together, as he proposes in the innocent intensity of youth, that knows that if you love that is what you must do.

There is Yeats’ Down by the Salley Gardens and there is music, guitar and Emma Thompson singing and there is the piano, which she also plays — how much perfection is needed in order to be incomparable — and rehearsal to show the class level required for all these moves and gestures. Not to mention, as class always presupposes, a great deal of money and all its signifiers.

If Tucci comes back after cheating, claiming perhaps for reasons of the same financial kind, still to want the incomparable, the point remains that for Thompson herself the kind of incidental affair, in the course of things, a dalliance that goes without saying and for him, without lasting consequences in Tucci’s case, cannot in her case be imagined.

Instead there is that hospital encounter, doorway meetings, the letters — where is love without letters? There is pursuit, Keats tells us we must have this, and a touch and an innocent, impossible kiss — Adam kisses her — witnessed, duly and of course, by her officious clerk. And nothing more.

What happens for the boy after he meets Fiona is nothing but his life. She did not save him as a judge by ordering a transfusion claimed by science, as if this were all one needed to cure an illness of this kind. Rather, as the psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan reminded his Parisians, her interaction with him, her presence lending him importance in his own and other eyes, singing with him — and the beauty of Yeats — gave him everything by giving him his own desire. All of this is imaginary, and this is what films give us. Thus poetry sings of love and the same imaginary echoes in music, an imaginary prospect then that nonetheless grants him the chance to live — as he writes to her of its intensity. Where another judge would call Adam a stalker, and hand him off to the police or, as it would be the same, to a psychiatrist, tossing whatever he wrote without reading it, Thompson’s judge does none of this. Her judgment is not her gift to him, not the officious order to have the state override his wishes. Fiona Maye gives Adam his desire: her response to his desire is the pain of what is not possible for him or for her.

The Children Act is not a story about marriage, it is not about Fiona and her husband Jack and his self-absorption. It is not a story about the children Fiona did not have, however much this matters to McEwan in his novel as this is very much his writerly sense of what woman is and what femininity is for. What the film, in spite of itself, manages to be is a love story, perhaps owing to the magisterial intensity that Emma Thompson, incomparably, brings to the role she plays: the love she felt, the love Adam felt, love for its own sake: pure and clear beauty.  And nothing more.

All Film Stills Credit and courtesy of A24