Contains some spoilers for the episode
Stephen (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Julie (Kelly Macdonald) have their lives ripped apart when their daughter Kate mysteriously vanishes while on a shopping trip with Stephen. Three years later Stephen is still trying to piece his life back together while working on his latest children’s book while Julie has retreated out to the countryside. But can they move on given everything that has happened?
The Child in Time is a tricky film to review. Words don’t really do justice to the experience of watching it. What a melancholy, haunting, delicate, brittle and ultimately uplifting thing it is. Adapted from the novel by Ian McEwan and directed with subtlety by Julian Farino it is the first production from SunnyMarch – Benedict’s production company with his friend Adam Ackland.
I confess I would usually run a mile from the subject matter – watching two parents lose their child is not my idea of relaxing Sunday night telly. I was expecting doom and gloom and certainly the scene of a panicked Cumberbatch realising that his daughter isn’t where he saw her just seconds ago is almost unbearably hard to watch. As is the moment when he breaks down in an empty headteacher’s office after having his elation at having found said daughter cruelly ripped away by the revelation that of course she isn’t his. It’s very hard to watch. And that’s before we tackle the issue of his friend’s nervous breakdown and subsequent suicide (which shocked the hell out of the audience when we saw it at the BAFTA screening) But the piece is a lot lighter than I was expecting. Surprisingly funny too in places – given the subject matter I was amazed at how often I laughed.
The Child in Time is ultimately a film about hope. Stephen’s hope that he can find his daughter (always always leaving a note with his mobile phone number on his door when he goes out just in case someone finds Kate and needs to contact him except in that final gorgeous, beautiful scene when he forgets…), his hope that his marriage to Julie can be what it was, Julie’s hope that Stephen can accept that what happened to them isn’t something he can just fix and that he can move on with his life, Thelma’s hope that her husband will get better and return to her, the hope from all the characters that somehow things can and will get better. It is this hope that makes The Child in Time such a gentle uplifting piece rather than something mired in darkness.
Narratively not a great deal happens and yet the emotional journeys these characters go on is immense. Stephen Butchard’s script plays out like a series of chamber pieces – snapshots into the emotional lives of these characters. The narrative twists and turns and goes in unexpected directions. The whole thing has a rather dream like quality. You experience it more as a series of emotions than a plot with a beginning, middle and end (helped by a beautiful, ethereal score).
The acting is top notch from all concerned. Benedict is in every scene and impresses as always. It’s very different from anything he’s done before and that is a very welcome thing. While he plays the tortured genius terribly well it’s nice to see him playing an ordinary man for once – albeit one going through an extraordinary experience. He plays Stephen as more open wound than man. He’s a man worn brittle and sharp from grief trying (and failing) to write his latest book while tentatively engaging in an almost romance with a colleague as well as trying to work out where he fits with his ex-wife. My heart broke for him when after asking to stay the night with Julie (and being denied) he chokingly asks her whether it will always be like this. He wants so hard to “fix” everything but some things can’t be fixed. It’s one hell of a performance. Your heart will break for him over and over. I have never wanted a character to find a measure of peace more than Stephen.
I was very impressed with Kelly Macdonald. In her hands Julie is warm and kind and very believable. Julie could have been a cliché of a grieving mother but Macdonald grounds her in reality. She is also very much her own person and not simply a side note to Stephen’s grief. Macdonald has wonderful chemistry with Benedict and does an awful lot with very little. I loved that the script doesn’t spell everything out in terms of what Julie goes through. When she tells Stephen that she is going away for a while to think things over we realise in the very last scene why that is but Butchard doesn’t feel the need to join the dots for us.
Stephen Campbell Moore (who I know best from the theatre including Chimerica and Photograph 51 (opposite Nicole Kidman)) is great in a very tricky role as a man mired in a nervous breakdown (If you have Netflix do check him out in Stag – gloriously dark comedy). Saskia Reeves exudes warmth and compassion as his wife struggling to get to grips with her husband’s mental state but loving every inch of him anyway. There’s also fine support from John Hopkins and Elliot Levey as the very very smarmy but amusing Home Secretary and Prime Minister.
The Child in Time won’t be everyone’s cup of tea but it is a beautiful, soulful, delicate film that deserves your full attention.