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Emma Thompson and Ffion Whitehead talk the power of listening in The Children Act

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The Children Act stars Emma Thompson as a judge struggling to balance a failing marriage with a exceedingly emotional case regarding a young Jehovah's Witness boy who's refusing the blood transfusion that could save his life.

We spoke to writer Ian McEwan and the filmmakers here.

 Ian West / Getty Images

 Source: Ian West / Getty Images

Here's what Emma Thompson and Dunkirk breakout Ffion Whitehead had to say about their fantastically complex characters, and the realtionship between the two. 

Fiona and Adam’s relationship is entirely unusual and it’s very highly charged - that bedside scene is a real crucible of emotions both for them and the audience - could you describe the effect each has on the other?

Ffion: In that scene, Adam is so encaptured by Fiona. She opens him up to a world to possibilities that he's never really been parley to. He’s led quite a sheltered upbringing, and so meeting her and everything she represents and the world she comes from is this awakening moment for him. And so that whole scene is just his fascination with her, and his fascination with this alien world that he’s never really been a part of. 

Emma: And also that she really listens to him, and takes him seriously. You probably all have had this moment where someone older than you, a proper adult person, is the first person who really listens to you and takes you seriously - it has a huge effect on you. You suddenly think that your opinions or the things that you have to say might be of worth. And that’s a massively important moment, because she I don’t think expects what she finds. She expects a child who’s been sheltered and perhaps not very well educated, and who might be unimaginative and bit ordinary, and perhaps even a bit dull.

I think she has assumptions that are blown away by this flame of life that she encounters, who then turns her listening around by listening so hard and then asking her very direct and difficult questions which she has no choice but to answer. It is a pivotal scene emotionally. He transfers a lot of stuff, and she has a parental reaction. All people - men, women, whether they are parents or not, have parental feelings, and this is one of things that is inspired in her: this maternal response. So it’s a very powerful multi-layered scene, and then there’s music at the end of it, that just puts the tin lid on it!

This is a story which tackles some of the most profound and important questions about humanity - how did the relationship between your two characters affect the two of you?

Emma: He’s transferred so much onto her, hasn’t he. It’s an enormous transference of his attentions, his affections - he’s in love with her in a way that a 17 year old can be in love with someone who’s much older and unreachable. So these are love letters and they’re to do with his feelings of being alive, suddenly, when he was looking death in the face. It’s an unusual and very highly charged moment for a young person, because most young people feel those things, but have’t actually been facing death - that’s what’s unusual about him. There’s so much to tackle, really.

She’s someone who sits above - you sit in court above everyone, you have this extraordinary overview, and it’s very difficult not to feel omniscient and omnipotent in such a situation. And suddenly, when he faces her, she has none of that - she doesn’t know what to do - he confuses her. And in fact she makes some bad decisions in how she responds to him. She is unkind to him, I think, and she could have dealt with it much much better had she had access  to her own emotional landscape. And at the time, of course, she’s very confused as to what’s going on, and so it’s one of those strange borders between your professional and personal life, where your private life is very unbalanced and out of whack, and then suddenly within the professional, you’re also faced with an extremely challenging personal relationship. 

Ffion: I think that for Adam, Fiona arriving .. opens up a world of possibilities for him, and also the fact that he feels healthier and keeps going with life - I don’t think he’s really considered a life after that. Especially not with the opening up of love poetry and all the rest of the world through creativity. The interesting thing playing the character, because he’s led such a sheltered life from these things, it’s quite a bizarre thing to try and see the world through the eyes of someone who’s never known these things from birth. It’s quite an alien thing - I don’t think many people have really ever been through it. So I think he just latches on to her from the get go. She is his only way in, as he sees it, so he becomes very obsessed with her. Everyone else in his life are Jehovah’s Witnesses, his family, his whole world, so he is compelled to follow her, and in a sense thinks that she can save him from something. 

Can I ask about the time you spent at the High Court observing judges, and what that experience was like and what you learnt from watching actual judges in action?

Emma: It was just one of the greatest privileges, really. Backstage at the Bailey and in those places, only judges and their clerks are allowed to walk on the red carpet. It’s extraordinary, the arcane hierarchies within that system are amazing. For starters that’s just very surprising, and then you suddenly realise that they are these godlike creatures in their robes, walking around with this extraordinary power. Hardly any women have that kind of power in the world, ever, so you’re playing something very unusual. And then I met quite a number of them, and watched them in action, and I talked to them afterwards. Watching them in action, which was the thing I did first, was extraordinary, because they listen with their whole bodies. It’s like they go so still, and the way they listen is so focussed, it’s determined listening. With such intention, so you can understand why silks could get a bit nervous with that ear upon them. It’s their task to listen and then calibrate and recalibrate the information that’s coming in, over and over like this extraordinary computer - the level of work and brainpower is amazing.

And then I got to know two judges personally, who’ve now become friends,  and my admiration for them extended even further. To combine that sense of power, that actual power, with compassion, with bringing up four children for instance, getting up at four o’clock in the morning and doing all the work so that she can see the children after school. This level of capacity - they are superhuman to me.

The other thing to note is that the family court is considered the sort of poor cousin. You know, criminal court, that’s the macho one, that’s where the real stuff happens, but the family court’s a little bit … and of course that’s just typical, frankly. It’s where the real drama and the real pain happens - it’s terrifying. That’s why Ian was so interested and was so drawn to it, because all human life is there - it’s like the Greek myths, every fucking day.

The Children Act is in cinemas on August 24th, distributed by Entertainment One.

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