Why Benedict Cumberbatch's Devastating New TV Movie Is His Most Personal Role Ever

Pinewood Television, SunnyMarch TV and MASTERPIECE for BBC One

There may be no fear as powerful as the fear that one's child will go missing. The Child In Time, premiering on PBS on April 1, confronts this fear head-on when the three-year-old child of a children's author goes missing during what should be a normal shopping trip. The Child In Time is not based on a true story, but explores the very reasons why child abductions are a parent's worst nightmare.

The Child In Time is based on a 1987 novel by Atonement author Ian McEwan. It begins soon after Stephen Lewis (Benedict Cumberbatch) loses track of his daughter, Kate. He's informing his wife that their daughter is missing, then the movie flashes back to the horrifying moment when the Lewis family's life is forever changed. Parents in the audience may find it difficult to watch.

In 1993, only six years after the original The Child in Time novel was published, The Independent reported that a study by charity organization Kidscape had found that 98 percent of London parents listed abduction as the biggest fear related to their kids.

According to a 2018 survey by A Secure Life, other fears have surged ahead, including accidents and attacks. But still, 14 percent of U.S. parents indicated that abduction was the fear that kept them up at night. But while the consequences of a child being abducted are massively life-altering, kidnappings are not all that common, according to modern studies on the matter.

In 2014, the FBI reported that out of 635,155 children reported missing, 332 were abducted by a stranger in the way that Kate Lewis is in The Child in Time. That means there is approximately a 0.5 percent chance that a missing child has been abducted by a stranger. (There is a 90 percent chance that missing children are runaways who left their families of their own volition.) These statistics mean that the situation that the Lewises find themselves in is incredibly unlikely. This fact should be a relief to worried parents, but the rarity also heightens the tragedy of the circumstances portrayed in the movie.

In an interview with the BCC about playing the role, Cumberbatch admitted, "When you’re dealing with something like the loss of a child it’s pretty distressing, I won’t lie. It was a very unpleasant place to go to." Cumberbatch has children of his own; so his role required him to tap into his personal fears.

While the statistics show that child abduction by strangers isn't a common phenomenon, The Child In Time is an example of why no number can fully relieve parents of bring frighten of losing their child in this manner. The TV movie quickly establishes that the story of The Child In Time isn't about the Lewis family trying to find their daughter. Instead, the movie asks if Stephen and his wife Julie (Kelly Macdonald) can possibly continue to live a full life after Kate is taken. Until they know what's happened to her, they can't move on. And if they ever do find out that she's not coming back, will they want to? Book spoiler! In the novel, Stephen sees visions of his parents as young people; it's almost supernatural in its incorporation of time.

The Child In Time is not based on a true story or any specific case of child abduction, but it may feel very real to those who have children — and certainly, those who have lost them. Perhaps it will also speak to anyone who's grieved any type of loss, as it's mainly concerned with recovery and ultimately, reaching a sense of acceptance.