There is one scene in The Child in Time that is at once so unbearably sad and so beautiful that you know it will stay with you for days afterwards.
Benedict Cumberbatch plays Stephen Lewis, a man who loses his four-year-old daughter Kate in a supermarket and never sees her again. One second she was there, the next she wasn’t. Three years later, he goes into her bedroom (unchanged since the day she disappeared) and retrieves a wrapped present from under a tree he has bought Kate for Christmas, as if she may materialise any minute. Inside is a walkie talkie set. He places one on her bed and goes to the living room with the other. “Dad to Kate,” he says, voice breaking. He tells her how much he loves her and misses her, before signing off with a sorrowful “over”.
The BBC1 adaptation of Ian McEwan’s 1987 novel co-stars Kelly Macdonald as Stephen’s wife, Julie, and Stephen Campbell Moore and Saskia Reeves as Charles and Thelma, their friends. It’s a story of grief and longing, and of a couple finding their way back into each other’s lives after tragedy tears them apart.
The drama deals with the subject of childhood on three levels. First and foremost, the trauma of two adults losing their child. Secondly, a man (Charles) who feels he was robbed of his own childhood and is searching for it once more, and finally the government’s intervention in child development.
There are moments in The Child in Time that will dry out the throat and quicken the heart rate of any parent watching. There’s the mounting panic in the supermarket as Stephen searches for his daughter, then the disintegration of his marriage when blame is ascribed. Every time Stephen pops out, even for a minute, he leaves a sign on the door saying he’ll be back soon, just in case Kate turns up. Everywhere he goes he thinks he sees her, in her yellow raincoat, in the corner of his eye.
At a Q&A following a press screening, Cumberbatch said the feeling of Kate’s absence was almost as strong as her presence in the film: “When you have that much presence and life, to feel that silence, that void, the little yellow coat not hanging up on the peg, one toothbrush in the cup and just the emptiness of a place that’s had her life in it.”
The Child in Time should be absolutely miserable but it’s not. MacDonald describes it as being full of “love and life and hope and being human” and there are genuinely, intelligently funny moments. Striking this delicate balance between humour and sincerity is a feat from director Stephen Butchard.
Cumberbatch said it was a strange role for him because it was so stripped back. “I’m wearing half of my wardrobe and I kind of look like I look – there’s nothing to hide behind,” he admitted. And he’s right: gone are the deerstalker hat à la Sherlock and the Doctor Strange cape. It’s just him.
But with a nuanced and raw performance like this, we are reminded of why he’s one of the best actors of his generation.
The Child in Time is on Sunday 24th September at 9pm on BBC1