It's good to be Benedict Cumberbatch, whose very busy, eclectic spring schedule includes the Showtime miniseries "Patrick Melrose" and "Avengers: Infinity War." Add to that "The Child in Time," a strange, lyrical "Masterpiece" production, steeped in the crippling pain that surrounds the loss of a child.
Foremost, the movie -- adapted from Ian McEwan's 1987 novel -- provides a showcase for Cumberbatch, and to a lesser degree the always-splendid Kelly Macdonald as his wife. Their relationship is fractured by the sudden disappearance of their four-year-old daughter, during a fleeting moment of inattentiveness by Cumberbatch's character, a noted children's book author named Stephen.
That moment, of course, represents every parent's nightmare (and, not incidentally, closely resembles the Starz series "The Missing"). Still, the PBS film proceeds to unfold in unexpected, not-wholly-satisfying directions, exploring deeper themes about memories, childhood and the hope for reconciliation in vaguely surreal ways.
The main focus is on the central couple, who are met a few years after those agonizing events. Yet there's also a subplot involving Stephen's friend Charles (Stephen Campbell Moore), who has experienced a breakdown causing him to regress into a childlike state, a thread that can't adequately be fleshed out or done proper justice within this 90-minute format.
The movie is nevertheless compelling, thanks largely to the interplay between Cumberbatch and Macdonald, in what amounts to a peculiar twist on a love story within the up-close-and-personal contours of a stage play. The film also bends the notion of time -- moving between the past and present in a disorienting but, ultimately, affecting manner, as the missing girl remains a presence in Stephen's life, even if she's gone.
Cumberbatch is one of the executive producers, and it's fair to say this somewhat unorthodox addition to the "Masterpiece" lineup likely wouldn't have been made without the actor -- already affiliated with the PBS franchise via "Sherlock" -- having lent his name, considerable star power and committed fan base (a group that even enjoys its own colorful nickname) to the enterprise.
As vanity projects go, though, "The Child in Time" is the sort that reflects well on its champion -- a guy who moves seamlessly between big splashy productions and small prestige ones. Viewed that way, "The Child in Time" falls squarely in the latter category, while offering Cumberbatch completists a performance that conjures a different sort of quiet magic.
"Masterpiece: The Child in Time" premieres April 1 at 9 p.m. on PBS.
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