The Child In Time

Kelly Macdonald & Benedict Cumberbatch. Source: BBC

So I have an… interesting… relationship with Benedict Cumberbatch as an actor. And now he’s a producer, which complicates the matter. The fact is that I completely adore him. I think he’s tremendously talented, as evidenced by his Emmy winning portrayal of Sherlock Holmes, which is, in my personal opinion, some of the finest acting to ever be done on television. Beyond Sherlock he’s done projects ranging from big blockbuster hits to West End theatre runs. He’s everywhere, most recently notable being his entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe in the incredibly significant role of Doctor Strange. My point is, he’s a good actor and he knows what makes a good film/TV show.

So when I learned he was going to be starring in The Child In Time — based on the novel of the same name by Ian McEwan –, and that it was being produced by his production company (SunnyMarch), I was really, genuinely excited. The premise of this film is quite somber — a man’s 4 year old daughter goes missing while under his watch, and the movie follows his journey as seeks to rebuild his life in the wake of horrible tragedy. If anyone could pull off this incredibly emotionally challenging role, it would be Benedict Cumberbatch. BC even said that he was drawn to the project because it was his chance to play a role that felt like “himself,” rather than the super extraordinary characters he was used to playing. I felt like this delicate topic was in trusted hands.

Well… turns out things weren’t that simple. Literally. What could have been a really poignant and memorable piece about the rawest and most brutal kind of grief, experienced by the most ordinary of people, turned into a strange and frankly incomprehensible philosophical misadventure. It was sort of the made-for-TV film equivalent of something you’d find in an abstract art museum. Many parts of it definetely felt like artistry — especially the delicate and complex relationship between Benedict Cumberbatch & Kelly Macdonald’s characters — but the strengths of these parts were lost to the weakness of the film as a whole.

The film diverges from the really good bits (in which Benedict Cumberbatch’s character grapples with the loss of his child) to focus on 2 bizzare subplots. In one, BC’s character goes to a little Inn by the sea and there he seems to witness events that happened in the past, and consequently led to his parent’s meeting and him being born (so that’s where the “Time” in the title comes in). Try as I might, I could not figure out the connection between his parent’s meeting and his struggle with grief. I don’t know why the film thought this was an important thing to focus on. It made no sense whatsoever in the context of the plot.

Making even less sense was the other subplot, in which BC’s best friend is so distraught with life as an adult that he goes to hide out in the woods where he can be carefree and childlike forever. This plot was distracting and honestly uncomfortable to watch. I didn’t think I as a viewer was really getting anything out of it, other than a feeling of deep unsettlement and confusion as to why Benedict Cumberbatch’s production company would have included this.

There were plenty of brilliant moments from Cumberbatch and Macdonald in this film. The best part of the entire movie was a gut-wrenching scene between the couple, when Macdonald confronts the fact that it was his fault their daughter is missing. And in a particularly moving scene, Cumberbatch’s character believes he has found his daughter, but after discovering he was mistaken he breaks down into a fit of hysterics that I haven’t seen done so powerfully on screen in a really long time.

It’s true that it was adapted from a novel, so that is the source of the plot structure, but I can’t help feeling that if they would have created a new script inspired by this novel rather than a direct adaptation, they would have had a far better product. The power of the piece was stripped away by the convoluted story. I think that with a subject matter as difficult as this, its best to stay straightforward. Or at least incorporate a thematic tool/narrative special effect that actually works with the aims of the story.

That’s the pros and cons of money in the entertainment industry — this script would never have been commissioned by a network as it stands, but Benedict Cumberbatch had the money to produce it himself, so he didn’t need a greenlight. And BBC was happy to air anything starring Benedict Cumberbatch, for the simple fact that his name means big numbers.

So overall, if you like Benedict Cumberbatch, you will like this film (even if it’s really sad). If you like well structured films… you probably won’t like this film. I’m giving it 2/5 stars, one for each of its lead actors.

I am a HUGE fan of Benedict Cumberbatch, but as a media critic I can admit the fact that not everything he does is flawless, such as this case (and Sherlock season 4… ya I’m still bitter). What I found upsetting was that with just a little more script revisions, this could have been.

Final Rating: C

Tell Us: Did you watch The Child In Time? What did you think?