The Child in Time airs April 1st, 9pm on PBS.
By Greg Wheeler
Adapted from the 1987 novel of the same name, The Child in Time is a peculiar and often confusing film adaptation who’s non linear narrative does little to fully explain key plot questions that are left unresolved when the credits roll. The editing does the film no favours either, giving little visual or audio clues about the time period as it shudders between the past and present with reckless abandon. Ultimately this is a film about grief and the devastating impact it can have on people’s lives. The Child in Time is a tragic, and oftentimes uncomfortable film, even if the plot struggles behind the excellent character performances by the lead characters.
The story begins strongly, with Stephen (Benedict Cumberbatch) in a daze after losing his daughter in a supermarket. Cumberbatch manages to portray the panic-stricken, shocked Father perfectly throughout the film and alongside his wife Julie (Kelly Macdonald) the two manage to steal the show with their wonderful performances. As the plot advances, it moves beyond the parents’ initial shock of losing their daughter to a slow-paced drama that focuses intently on these two lead characters as they try to piece together their lives following the tragedy. Those looking for a fast paced, thrill-soaked film won’t find it here. The suffocatingly slowly narrative puts the focus on the lead characters but the non linear way the story is woven throughout the film is confusing to the point of distracting away from the character performances.
Technically, the film is a little heavy handed in its delivery as well. A lot of the shots are filmed through handheld cameras making for a disorientating, vertigo-inducing watch. In doing so, it means a lot of the scenes that should be focused on the characters, are instead shaking so violently that it makes it hard to focus on anything transpiring in the scene. In terms of sound design though, The Child in Time is outstanding. The way the quiet, rural settings juxtapose with the cacophony of noise in the busy, urban areas reflects the way Cumberbatch’s character struggles to adjust to normal life after what’s happened. The sound is oftentimes muffled during the urban sections, accentuating his initial numbness and grief after the tragedy that’s occurred. Arguably, this is the strongest part of Child in Time because it struggles in almost every other area.
Aside from the two lead characters and the strong opening, The Child in Time suffers from a plot that fails to provide a satisfying conclusion or any sort of explanation about what’s transpired through the film. There’s a hint of the supernatural here; Stephen’s friend Charles (Stephen Campbell Moore) acts unnaturally childlike and the two parents consistently see echoes of their daughter nestled in the bustle of everyday life but nothing is ever truly explained. The open ending also leaves it up to the audience to work out their own conclusion and whilst this might raise some interesting debates about exactly what’s going on, it conclusively feels like the wrong option, leaving too many unanswered questions that frustrates and sours the overall experience.
In the end, The Child in Time makes for a frustrating watch. Benedict Cumberbatch and Kelly Macdonald are decent in their roles as the grieving, shocked parents struggling to piece their lives back together after this tragedy but everything else just feels off. The non linear narrative does the film no favours and despite some good sound design, the editing and script work are below par. The unresolved climax and lack of explanation around what’s happening in the plot is sure to alienate a lot of people and even the star power at work can do little to hide that fact. A disappointing film for sure, and one that’s difficult to recommend to anyone who isn’t willing to try and figure out the missing pieces themselves.
I give The Child in Time a D.