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The Child in Time – Review * 24 September 2017

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'The Child in Time is unadaptable.'

There's probably a slight paraphrase there based on the space of nearly two decades of memory, but those were effectively the words of author Ian McEwan on his own novel, heard by the ears of this reviewer in his late teens and possibly hazily recalled here in 2017. Back in the late nineties, The Child in Time was a set text on my English Literature course at school, and it was a piece of work to dissect and struggle with rather than ponder and enjoy. It's quite a thing then, all this time later, to come to an adaptation that exists despite the past opinion of McEwan himself, and to find Benedict Cumberbatch in both the leading actor and executive producer role on the final ninety minute film.

Thirty years after the novel was published, we're presented with an unexpectedly faithful film version. The novel is characterised by a benignly simple core narrative thread - the devastating disappearance of a child and the emotional fallout the event has on her father and mother - surrounded with much more complex themes that delve into the world of quantum theory and (possible) time travel. Much of that temporal possibility is thankfully ditched in the screen version, instead twisting critical events into the potentially supernatural.   

Structurally, the film takes cues from the nature of memory and fractured thoughts. Early on, events are deliberately jumbled, before the film enters a linear structure as life attempts to return to some semblance of impossible normality for famous children's author Stephen Lewis (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his wife Julie (Kelly Macdonald). The moment that destroys their world is, as in the book, presented with a casual yet chilling believability. The disappearance of their 4 year old daughter is admirably ripped straight from the page (the moment Stephen notices she is gone is literally buried in the middle of a large paragraph, such is the initial smallness of the realisation the little girl is gone), but other critical moments are also translated wholesale. Not least of these is the odd encounter Stephen has at a country pub while attempting to visit his estranged wife. It's from that particular moment the film version takes an idea from the novel and runs with it, amplifying it beyond the original version into something that is more explicitly an interpretation of the title. Throughout the film we're presented with characters having visions of children that are clearly there one moment and gone the next, and we're made to ponder whether these are the tricks of the mind made by grief or something else. Can they be interpreted as hallucinations or the ghosts of people that could be?

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That isn't all there is to this adaptation though, and it's in the secondary plotline of the piece that things become altogether more challenging. The story also deals with the breakdown of Stephen's best friend Charles (Stephen Campbell Moore). An MP, Stephen deliberately retreats from public life with his wife Thelma (Saskia Reeves) and effectively regresses mentally. The events are played with slight mystery and a growing sense of political scandal, all while the elite of the country want to know what is going on. It's here the other major theme of the piece comes into play - the sense of intrusion into our private worlds. In places it's subtle, such as the use of sudden sounds, or the unwelcome appearances of passersby. In others, it's the inquiring interest of the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, and most tellingly in the government authorised report into improving childcare that Stephen is contributing to thanks to his old friendship with Charles.  Both Stephen and Charles enter a very insular world of their own making but for very different reasons, yet ironically both of them are searching for a child professionally and privately.

At the risk of purely analysing the thematic nature of the material (hey, I had to sit an exam on this thing!) or discuss what is and isn't translated from page to screen (the quantum physics is dumped so Thelma has nothing much to say; there's no time-slowing lorry crash sequence; the Cold War is of course over so the spectre of nuclear armageddon is absent -and Stephen doesn't have to obliviously ignore it as a result) it's best to move onto the brilliance of the performances.

It's par for the course now to expect a superb bit of acting from Benedict Cumberbatch, and of course that's what you do indeed get here. It's a naturalistic performance, beautifully unshowy and remarkably restrained given the circumstances. His interpretation of Stephen is of a man of real determination and hope, yet one who really must let go of the past and move on as it begins to manifest as real desperation. A showpiece sequence where Stephen believes he has seen his daughter three years after her disappearance is the acting showpiece of the film, the true belief of the man giving way to unbearable despair in a master class of subtlety from Benedict.

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Although the remaining cast has less to do, all also turn in sterling work. Kelly Macdonald in particular gives us the opposing side to Stephen's determined calm, raging in upset and anger in flashback while quietly forgiving in the momentum of the present. Her interactions with Benedict produce the real sense of easy warmth that is blocked by a barrier between them both - the unavoidable sense of blame that it was Stephen who lost their daughter. The pair care deeply for each other but cannot bear to be with each other, a beautifully observed stiltedness that is laced with love. Stephen Campbell Moore too delivers a highly believable performance, and the sense of Charles' mental regression and buried desperation is palpable and disturbing as a result.

The production itself is intimate and realistic. Nothing in Julian Farino's direction is over the top, and that makes the events shown horribly plausible. As a film, it is simple and quiet and quite sad, the only moments of showmanship resulting from the fractured editing that reinforces the sense of unbidden memories bubbling back to the surface. It is gorgeously shot and produced, with the more complex theoretical material stripped away to create something that remains incredibly thought provoking.  

The Child in Time is a story concerned with the devastating loss of a child, but also what it means to be a child. It ultimately concludes that when a traumatic event has occurred the past is a dangerous place and it does not serve to dwell there. The future must be embraced at all costs, no matter the pain of the past and the ache of the present, because hope is the most important thing of all. Far from being an unadaptable work, this is a beautiful interpretation that retains the core themes and events of a challenging book. It is filled with warmth and also a terrifying chill, to interpret and savour and hope we never have to experience in our own lives.

And it's also nice to get the chance to put a ghost of my own late childhood to rest through writing this review.

The Child in Time currently has no DVD or Blu Ray release scheduled.
You can purchase the original novel at Amazon.

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