This BBC production adapts Ian McEwan’s `987 Whitbread Prize winning novel, “The Child in Time” into a contemplative look a children and childhood and the tragedy of adulthood and its problems. Presented on PBS Masterpiece, Benedict Cumberbatch plays an author of children’s books whose four-year-old daughter Kate goes missing.
Stephen Lewis (Cumberbatch) goes to market one day and in between using his credit card, punching in his PIN and refusing cash back, his daughter, who had been looking at magazines, disappears. She’s a delightful little moppet with wispy blonde hair in a yellow raincoat. He dashes outside and then back, losing his groceries. The alarm is raised and the police are called, but he must tell his wife Julie (Kelly Macdonald) what he has done. He can’t quite explain, but she notices that their darling daughter Kate isn’t with Stephen.
The movie flashes back and forth, between the moments when Kate was there and back to the present where Stephen listlessly exists with the television as his only company. Julie has moved away. His best friend, Charles Darke (Stephen Campbell Moore) is a man on the rise politically. Charles’ wife, Thelma (Saskia Reeves), encourages Stephen to reconnect with his wife, leading to a mysterious event where Stephen peers into the past and sees his mum who seems to see him as well.
Stephen also sees his daughter and one of his sightings turns out to be a potentially embarrassing episode that is tenderly and sensitively handled by sympathetic strangers. Telling Julie, Stephen notes, “Five minutes or more, I thought I found her. Five minutes at least of euphoria….I thought of you, of telling you. I was lucky I wasn’t arrested.”
Julie responds, “I think she may have to be the one to find us….How certain are you that she’s alive.”
Stephen tells her, “I know that if she wasn’t alive, I’d feel it.”
“I do, too. …It’s hard to accept that we’re helpless, but we are,” Julie confesses.
Just when Stephen seems to have reconnected with this wife, she decides to leave without giving a destination except “somewhere warm, somewhere I can get to by train.”
Later his mum (Geraldine Alexander) confesses to having seen Stephen, many years ago, make her decide not to abort her child and ultimately resulting in her marriage to his father (Richard Durden) and his birth. She reminds him to keep loving Kate and that loving her is different from missing her because she must be somewhere. After all, Stephen was a child who somehow stepped through to the past and that lends a slender ray of hope in Stephen’s continued visions of his lost daughter.
Stephen isn’t the only one who visits the past and there is a death involved that might make this movie problematic for young children. Cumberbatch and Macdonald have a tender chemistry and director Julian Farino sensitively looks at a tragedy that has no satisfying answers but offers the possibility of new beginnings as long as one moves forward and lets go of the past.
The last words are Stephen’s: “Keep breathing; keep breathing.” That is what life is all about.
“The Child in Time” aired on 24 September 2017 on the BBC and airs on PBS Masterpiece on 1 April 2018 (Sunday). Check local listings.