BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH / RALPH LAUREN / MILES JUPP / JOHN BLASHFORD-SNELL
IT ’S A BRIGHT AF TERNO ON in April, and standing in front of me, wearing only blue trunks, is Benedict Cumberbatch. We are in a repurposed office complex near Uxbridge, on the set of The
Child in Time, a feature-length adaptation of Ian Mcewan’s Whitbread Prize-winning 1987 novel. Cumberbatch is playing Stephen Lewis, a children’s author whose three-year-old daughter vanished while the pair were at the supermarket. It’s a horror that puts an unbearable strain on his marriage to Julie (Kelly Macdonald) and on his other professional commitment: sitting on a Thatcherite government committee known as the Official Commission on Childcare. Stephen is a man unmoored by loss, floating through life in grief-stricken isolation.
But right now, Cumberbatch is worrying about his abs. ‘I do keep having to say to the director, “Did my body look too good in that scene?”’ he tells me, tongue in cheek, as he heads towards the bath- room to film a scene in which Stephen submerges himself in the bath in his empty, echoing flat. ‘Can you see my six pack? Maybe I should hide it…’
‘It’s not for reasons of body image or any of that nonsense!’ Cumberbatch, 41, clarifies, laughing, as he towels himself off after a fourth dunking. ‘I’m training for the next instalment of Marvel [where he is reprising his role as mystic superhero Doctor Strange in a cameo for the third
Avengers movie, Infnity War], whereas Stephen is
a man who’s in the deep throes of grieving and this horrendous, keening, mourning inertia. It’s a huge wave of all sorts of things. And this is a year after the disappearance of his daughter, so he’s not been looking after himself. He’s been drinking, he’s been eating whatever he can find in a plastic food container. It’s not like he’s been on a Marvel diet and pumping iron like I have.’
The Child in Time will be the first drama by Cumberbatch’s Sunnymarch production company to be released. They are four weeks into the intense, modestly budgeted five-week shoot. As a producer, Cumberbatch is involved in every aspect of the project, from script development to choosing the cast and crew. ‘It’s not about control at all,’ he insists. ‘It’s about making certain conditions more palatable – certainly not necessarily for me but for crew, working hours, catering, locations, facilities. All of that can often get overlooked in the grand masterplanning of getting things in on time and on budget. And I wanted to exert a bit of influence in that department.’ An already demanding role in front of the camera, then, is doubled, trebled by his obligations off-camera.
When Ian Mcewan began writing The Child
in Time, he wasn’t yet a father, ‘although my then-wife was pregnant, so it was on my mind. And by the time I finished the book – it was a long time in the writing – a second child was born,’ he tells me. ‘I think the core of the story was that I felt that huge love, a new love for a child. And to describe that love was in part carried through by imagining what it would be to lose that love.’
Scriptwriter Stephen Butchard (who adapted Bernard Cornwell’s The Last Kingdom for the BBC) read The Child in Time on publication, ‘and it was one of those books that stays with you. I wanted to take care of the tone, the moods and the emotions of the book.’ Dramatising Stephen’s internalised grief for the screen was a challenge, and director Julian Farino worked closely with Cumberbatch to create a story that wasn’t ‘endlessly tearful’.
‘Benedict looks for emotional truth,’ Farino says. ‘He’s quite cerebral but he’s also an incredibly versatile actor – he’d offer a lot of different elements in different takes. He’s often playing these mercurial, articulate characters [Richard III, Sherlock Holmes, Stephen Hawking, Julian Assange and Alan Turing, to name but a few]. And this is a little bit more everyman; the emotions Stephen feels are universal.’
They also decided to make more of the role of Julie. ‘She is the other half of the grief and the tragedy, but also a source of strength and courage,’ Butchard explains. ‘I saw it as a story of love rather than a story of tragedy.’
Kelly Macdonald agrees. When I ask her, in the hair and make-up trailer, whether she drew on her own emotions as the mother of two young children, she emphatically shakes her head. ‘That’s not how it works for me. When a scene is well written, the work is all there. And working with Benedict helps – he nails it every single time. So both of
‘It’s great playing a man who drinks cups of tea, and isn’t firing energ y out of his hands’
those [factors] have made it quite easy to reach what needs to be reached. I mean, every scene, it’s such heavy shit!’ she laughs. ‘It’s really full-on, but it’s been handled with quite a light touch.’
In his own trailer, Cumberbatch – himself the father of two young children – quickly anticipates one key line of questioning. ‘It might look like an odd choice for a new father to be tackling a drama about losing a child,’ he nods, before sidestepping the question by focusing on more prosaic, practical reasons. ‘It worked for me because it’s a London shoot, and I’ve got a newborn.’
The Child in Time also felt like a perfect fit for Sunnymarch, the company he formed with best friend Adam Ackland in 2015. They met on the BBC’S 2008 drama The Last Enemy, where Ackland was the second assistant director. He describes the company as ‘incredibly writer-driven’, an ethos affirmed by their other dramas in development: adaptations of Megan Hunter’s The End We Start
From, Matt Haig’s How To Stop Time and Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male, as well as a TV series of Edward St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels, filming this autumn, with Cumberbatch again in the lead.
With The Child in Time, both Ackland and Cumberbatch worked hard to pick cast and crew who they knew and respected. ‘That was pivotal for us. It was quite a small unit. It was nothing like the big Hollywood films we do as well,’ he adds, a reference in part to The Current War, a depiction of the rivalr y b e tween ele ctricity pione ers Thomas Edison (Cumberbatch) and George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon), which premiered at this month’s Toronto Film Festival.
Indeed, it was the fact of The Child in Time’s small-screen destination that added to its appeal for Cumberbatch. ‘This was such a high-calibre [project],’ he says. ‘There’s pedigree involved – it’s a BBC One drama, and the first ever adaptation of a Mcewan novel on television. When you’re trusted to do that, that gives a cast-iron initial quality to the project.’
Probably best-known and loved for Sherlock (and, more recently, Doctor Strange), Cumberbatch also admits, ‘It’s great playing a man who drinks cups of tea, has normal conversations, daydreams, doodles on a pad and isn’t talking at a million miles an hour or firing energy out of his hands.’
When I catch up with Mcewan after filming, he proclaims the finished product ‘very moving’. ‘A lot was resting on [Cumberbatch’s] shoulders,’ he says. ‘The whole project from the beginning was identified with him. He was the one who wanted to do [the adaptation], and I got a feeling that it wouldn’t have got made without Benedict. He brings the weight of his enormous talent, and the fact that he’s such a recognisable figure now – he’s on the edge of becoming a national treasure.’ The Child in Time is on BBC One at 9pm tomorrow
Cumberbatch with Beatrice White, who plays Kate, the daughter who goes missing
Benedict Cumberbatch as Stephen Lewis and Kelly Macdonald as his wife, Julie
Cumberbatch on location during the film’s five-week shoot
Director Julian Farino, left, with Stephen Campbell Moore, who plays Charles, Stephen Lewis’s friend