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Film review: The Children Act, The Guardians, and Pope Francis: A Man of his word

24 August 2018

Stephen Brown sees current film releases

Emma Thompson and Fionn Whitehead in The Children Act

Emma Thompson and Fionn Whitehead in The Children Act

FOR the film of The Children Act (Cert. 12A), Ian McEwan has adapted his own novel. Emma Thompson plays Fiona Maye, a Family Law High Court judge. “I’ve got the bloody Archbishop of Westminster breathing down my neck,” she tells her husband, Jack (Stanley Tucci). A single-minded devotion to duty has affected their marriage. He takes off with a younger woman.

The rationalism that Fiona lives by is insufficient to cope with the emotional turmoil that this generates. Subsequently faced with what should have been an open-and-shut case, she falters. Adam (Fionn Whitehead) is a 17-year-old Jehovah’s Witness, who has rejected a life-saving blood transfusion. As the director, Richard Eyre (Iris, Notes on a Scandal), describes it, Fiona’s intervention puts her in the position of playing God.

Instead, she decides to visit him in hospital before ruling, which would be highly unlikely in real life — especially when he accompanies her singing Yeats’s “Down by the Salley Gardens” on his guitar. Not for the first time, it says less about furnishing a credible narrative than about McEwan’s belief that art, like intellect, can redeem the world. In Atonement (Arts 7 September 2007), someone’s tragic misperception of a situation ruins a couple’s lives. As propitiation, she gives them a happy ending in her final novel. McEwan is either being shallow or ironic in this understanding of redemption.

Adam is scarcely a plausible Jehovah’s Witness. A profound thinker, his intelligence and sensitivity make it unlikely that he could ever have accepted the narrowness of his religion’s outlook. After Fiona saves him from death, he begins stalking her (shades of McEwan’s Enduring Love). Mostly, Fiona the professional sees no future in this relationship, but, heart and head being in two different places, Fiona the woman has complicated feelings about him. Like her husband, she is attracted to a younger person.

Meanwhile, Adam questions his religious beliefs in favour of logic, but what has wrought this volte-face? McEwan’s agenda seems once again to be overriding more probable scenarios. McEwan, patron of Humanists UK, claims that people must be free to worship all the gods they want; but, on the other hand, he is on record saying that he has “no patience whatsoever” with religion. Eyre says: “I resent all organised religions.” Many of us can be baffled by the creed and practices of Jehovah’s Witnesses without feeling that they are representative of mainstream religions.

Axes are being ground throughout this film. The extremes of the Witnesses provide an Aunt Sally to take a swing at religion in general. But we have already seen that Fiona cannot live by rationalism alone. It is a false god, or at least an inadequate one. At a Christmas party, she plays the Coventry Carol. Its reference to Jesus as a Holy Innocent contrasts somewhat with the limitations on her own powers to rescue those threatened with death.

Iris Bry and and Cyril Descours in The Guardians

SHOT through with prayer, primarily of the cri-de-coeur kind, The Guardians (Cert. 15) is a beautiful film. It is set in France’s Haute-Vienne region from 1915 to 1920. Able-bodied men are on the Western Front. The women left behind are now Les Gardiennes of the land. Using methods as old as biblical times, they plough, sow, cultivate, reap, flail, and take on jobs — such as fitting cartwheels and hewing timber — usually assigned to males. We see little of the military carnage, but enough to know what these soldiers are going through.

The director is Xavier Beauvois, whose film Of Gods and Men (Arts, 10 December 2010) gave a heart-rending account of monks facing assassination by Algerian jihadists. This time, the religious dimension is more muted, but still present. Francine (Iris Bry) is a 20-year-old orphan recruited to assist the ageing Hortense (Nathalie Baye), who struggles to manage the farm. Almost immediately, we see Francine unpacking a crucifix and fastening it to her bedroom wall. Throughout the film, she represents the constant Christian. Others may, in the words used by the priest (Michel Lamy), have “a wavering faith”.

Francine works unobtrustively, hits it off with family members, and is honest as the day is long. One of the sons, Georges (Cyril Descours), is home on furlough. He quickly falls for the girl before returning to battle. At his request, Francine writes to him. “I am praying for you,” she says. In reply, he orders her to stop. “Prayers won’t save us.” It doesn’t deter her. Thus commences a spiritual battle over different understandings of intercession. Georges is dismissive of divine intervention. For Francine, prayer is an act of God’s love. “Please God, take care of my beloved,” she cries.

The scene where a congregation prays for soldiers like Georges is intercut with his father refusing to worship but nevertheless wringing his hands while looking heavenwards. For men in the trenches, death may often be a welcome relief from their hellish existence but at church, in a clear reference to their womenfolk, the priest beseeches the Blessed Virgin to take pity on those who “still drain the bitter cup of life”.

Slowly we realise that there are parallels between what is happening at war and down at the farm. Blood turns out to be thicker than water. The family treacherously advances its hold on land and place in society irrespective of the damage caused to others, echoing the factors that lead countries into war.

Francine becomes the scapegoat for those unwilling to acknowledge their own culpability. But the savage blow that she receives is the making of her. The priest prays that she may become a true representative of God’s love. We already know that is what she is. In a series of tableaux, which the director has likened to paintings by Van Gogh and Millet, we discern in Francine a portrait of someone described by the priest as “bathed in divine light”.

A still from Pope Francis

THE documentary Pope Francis: A man of his word (Cert. PG) is not critical of its subject, but nor is it hagiography. Wim Wenders is too good a director to do the Vatican’s PR for it, and it isn’t the first time that he has explored faith. One of his most famous feature films, Wings of Desire (1987) looked at the life of angels, and his documentaries, including The Soul of a Man (2003), often plumb the spiritual depths of his subjects. In West Germany, he was raised in a Roman Catholic family and wanted to be a priest. Many years ago, he turned to Protestantism but there is no doubting the admiration that Wenders has for the present Pope.

The director uses an interesting device to interview the Pope: an interrotron. It was pioneered by the documentary-maker Errol Morris, and allows the interviewee to appear looking straight to camera when replying. His remarks are peppered with intriguing sound-bites. “Love is a choice.” Being “enslaved to money” has brought about a “globalisation of indifference”. By a love of work, environment, and family, “you are imitating God with your own hands.”

He addresses his hosts at the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem with the words. “Adam, where are you?” and then “Man where are you? Man, who are you are?” to have done such terrible things. God give us grace to be ashamed, he prays. The film’s subtitle could have been A man of his words; for there are many. Even so, focusing on the face tells us much more. Whether it’s in jokes about mother-in-laws or marital conversations involving flying plates, Wenders reveals joy and pathos in Francis’s eyes and smile. The Pope tells him he always ends morning devotions with St Thomas More’s prayer that asks God to grant him a good sense of humour.

He is the first pope to call himself Francis. Wenders seizes on this, beginning with a monochrome sequence. We see the 14th-century saint from Assisi setting about restoring God’s purpose for the world. It is interesting that the director plays this as a silent movie. St Francis is attributed with bidding his friars “Go out and preach the gospel, and only if necessary use words.”

The rest of the film neatly balances the Pope’s words with action. Whether it is precious moments that he spends with hurricane victims in the Philippines, suffering children in the Central African Republic, Muslim leaders in the Middle East, the US Congress, or adoring crowds in Bolivia, he has the same message of love.

Witnessing so much global and individual conflict could risk compassion fatigue in an audience were it not for Francis’s luminous personality. To Christians, he asserts, the future has a name: hope. The film leaves us feeling that we have been in the presence of holiness.

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