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Emma Thompson plays a family High Court judge in The Children Act.

Entertainment One

Emma Thompson knows when to cry. Think of how she saves her tears in Sense and Sensibility for the very end, when her emotional dam bursts with a sob. Recall how she dashes to her bedroom to cry in Love, Actually: She lets go a couple of tears, fights them back, gives her bedspread a tug to straighten it (that always gets me), and heads back out with a smile. In her new drama, The Children Act – written by Ian McEwan, based on his novel, and directed by Richard Eyre – Thompson plays Fiona Maye, a family High Court judge who remains dry-eyed in the face of horrific human dilemmas; it’s shame at her own weakness that finally makes her crack.

Of course, knowing when to cry mostly means knowing when not to. “It’s not mechanical, but there is something premeditated about crying on screen,” Thompson told me during an interview at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival (the film premiered then, but is only now arriving in select cites). She was drinking a cup tea, looking fabulously tanned and blonde, and staying friendly and focused despite handlers managing a scheduling fiasco in the background.

“No matter how upset you are, you’ve got the length of a movie,” she continued. “You can only crack once. If you crack more than once, everyone just gets bored. Well, I get bored. I go, ‘Oh no, she’s not crying again? Please, stop it. I’m tired.’ I don’t want to watch easy acting, that’s boring.”

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Read more: The Globe’s guide to TIFF 2018 movies

I thought a lot about Thompson’s no-tears rule during this year’s TIFF, where by coincidence I saw many, many movies about mothers – good mothers, I am happy to report, not the usual monster-moms. But, this being TIFF, the last bastion of mid-budget human drama, the good mothers are always in harrowing positions, and so it was interesting to see how they dealt with the cry/not cry conundrum.

Nicole Kidman stays stoic in two films, though in both her characters do some lousy mothering. In Destroyer, she plays a tough police detective who’s encased her heart in lead; in Boy Erased, she sends her son to a gay conversion camp. But in each, when her character tries to atone, Kidman chooses to hold back tears rather than let them go. She may be a movie star, but she’s also a hell of an actress. In If Beale Street Could Talk, Regina King plays another mother who won’t cry, but for a different reason: She won’t give her foes the satisfaction. Her resolve is more heart-rending than tears would be.

In Wild Rose and Roma, young mothers played by, respectively, Jessie Buckley and Yalitza Aparicio each cry once – but they earn it, because their emotion originates in what they haven’t been able to do for their children. Similarly, in Beautiful Boy, Maura Tierney plays a woman whose stepson (Timothée Chalamet) is flailing; when she finally breaks into sobs, you share her hopelessness. In Capernaum, it’s the opposite: Yordanos Shiferaw plays an undocumented migrant who doesn’t crack until things finally go right, enabling us to share in her joy.

Of the TIFF films I’ve seen, only Julia Roberts breaks Thompson’s rule. Roberts’s character cries several times during Ben is Back, which takes place over one long, dark night. To be fair, her son (Lucas Hedges) is a drug addict in a perilous place, and she’s fighting for his life. Still, I suspect Thompson is right – had Roberts restricted herself to one cry, it might have had more impact.

Thompson doesn’t play a mother in The Children Act, but the central case upon which Fiona is ruling stirs up complicated feelings – some maternal, some decidedly not. Adam (Fionn Whitehead) needs a blood transfusion, or he’ll die of leukemia. Because he’s a Jehovah’s Witness, for whom blood is sacred, he doesn’t want the procedure. But because he’s just shy of 18, the state has jurisdiction. When Fiona’s judicial impartiality thaws, she begins to question what she believes, including what she believes about herself.

McEwan and Eyre (who also directed Iris and Notes on a Scandal) have been friends for 40 years, and when they agreed to make the film together, “we said there is really only one person who can do this part, and that’s Emma,” Eyre recalled in a separate TIFF interview. “That’s a dangerous position to put yourself in, but in this case it was true. Emma is the right age, with the right look, and she’s so luminously intelligent. You believe she understands everything she’s dealing with.”

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Thompson’s decision to withhold emotion until the end was risky, Eyre continued, but he supported it wholeheartedly: “The danger is, you could recoil from her character. But in life, people struggle not to betray their feelings. That’s why it drives me crazy when actors are much too willing to give way to the luxury of a good cry. It’s more heartbreaking to see people fighting that. Emma makes that into a wonderful virtue, so when she finally does break down, it’s absolutely seismic and terribly upsetting.”

As part of her research, Thompson met with two women family-court judges, and discovered that they live by her no-cry rule. “They’re always watching dreadful crises marching in front of them,” she said. “I asked them, ‘How do you cope? How do you manage not to cry, when you see upset children and families?’ They said, ‘You build up a resistance. Or you go under.’

“My admiration for these women – their brains, the way they use their brains, their compassion – is limitless,” Thompson added. “They have families, and they have also committed their lives to the well-being and the balance of the state. You have to defend yourself against that somewhere, or it would drive you ... crazy.” Thompson and the two judges have remained friends; they meet for regular dinners, “to talk about everything – where we are, what’s going on in the world,” she said. “That’s been a great gift.”

Elsewhere this month, on Amazon Prime, Thompson plays one of literature’s most fearsome daughters, Goneril, in Eyre’s adaptation of King Lear, with Anthony Hopkins as Lear, Emily Watson as Regan and Florence Pugh (Lady Macbeth) as Cordelia. (It drops Sept. 28.) Goneril is often played as a villain; Thompson sees her differently, as a woman abused by her “dreadful old bastard” of a father. I haven’t seen it yet, but I bet she doesn’t cry in it. I bet we won’t want her to.

The Children Act opens Sept. 14

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