Paralysing, horrific, addictive viewing – Cumberbatch shines.
The first ten minutes of The Child In Time is undeniably painful watching. Every second of gut-wrenching blind panic experienced by father Stephen (the ever majestic Benedict Cumberbatch) on the sudden, inexplicable disappearance of his daughter transmits through the screen – paralysing, horrific, addictive viewing. The remaining hour and a half is no different. The Child In Time is utterly traumatic watching, even if it’s one of the best television films to grace the BBC this year.
Of course, no one would expect any less from an Ian McEwan adaptation. An author well-known for his intricate exploration of human emotion – particularly that of grief and suffering – his 1987 novel The Child In Time won the Whitbread Novel Award and is one of the celebrated author’s first notable works. Brought to the screen by Stephen Butchard and Julian Farino for the BBC, The Child In Time works perfectly as a television film. Rather than rising and falling, the adaptation remains a steady beat across the hour and a half, reflective of the agonising slow burn of Stephen’s grief. The disorientating time jumps similarly jarr the viewing experience, immersing us in the tortured mind of our protagonist – a father whose life stopped the day his child disappeared.
Benedict Cumberbatch delivers his most profound performance on the screen for some time. The call of fame may have come for Cumberbatch in the form of abrasive television detective, a sorcerer/superhero in the turning cog of the MCU and the voice of a villainous Middle-Earth dragon, but The Child In Time shows off a Shakespearian calibre to the esteemed actor usually reserved for within theatre walls. The narrative draws around his tortured performance, and Cumberbatch holds your attention with ease throughout. Kelly Macdonald is just as heartbreaking as Stephen’s estranged wife Julie, withdrawn from society and crippled by the loss of her child. Most surprisingly, Stephen Campbell Moore excels in the show’s ambitious subplot, portraying a government worker who suffers a mental breakdown and regresses back into boyhood behaviour.
The whole thing is a tornado of misery, but those that thrive on a good traditional drama will love it to pieces. Looking deeper, it merely skims the surface of the intricate discussion about childhood proposed in McEwan’s original novel, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Instead of bogging it down in long academic conversations, The Child In Time hones in on raw emotion, and provokes it in its viewers too.
The Child In Time aired last Sunday on BBC One. Catch up with it on BBC iPlayer.