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New and upcoming performances by Benedict Cumberbatch can be reported. The chap has a lot of followers. A lot.

In May, Showtime will air the five-part series Patrick Melrose, based on the novels by Edward St. Aubyn. Cumberbatch, who also executive produces, stars as the self-destructive, addiction-prone title character. Mainly it is about the man’s long battle to transcend a childhood among the very rich and comfortable English gentry, raised by a formidably abusive father and a mother who turned a blind eye to the abuse. The novels, well worth reading, are an elegantly scathing series of portraits of well-off awfulness. And the series, from what I’ve seen, is wonderful.

The Child in Time (Sunday, PBS, 9 p.m. on Masterpiece) comes first and it, too, has a literary anchor – Ian McEwan’s award-winning novel published in 1987. This BBC adaptation, a 90-minute one-off drama, stands on its own merits. It is not an entirely faithful adaptation, nor could it be. Some of the novel’s brooding on the nature of time and time’s role in understanding the universe beggars dramatization.

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Instead it is a powerful, first-rate and at times painfully scalding portrait of grief, guilt and loss. And it is far from necessary to have read the book to appreciate what unfolds here. It opens with a blunt dramatization of sudden loss and stays focused on forlorn bereavement. Stephen (Cumberbatch), a successful children’s writer, returns to his home in a police car and must tell his wife, Julie (Kelly Macdonald), that their four-year-old daughter Kate has disappeared. “She was there,” he says, struggling quietly. “She was there, she was just there, she was right there.”

Indeed she was, as we soon see. It was a mundane trip to a local supermarket, the child was by his side and the half-minute he is distracted paying for the groceries – the horribly inevitable question about a points card, paying in cash and does he want bags — she vanishes. Then it is some years later and Stephen and Julie have separated. She lives near a remote village and he goes dully about his life, trying to write another book. To distract from his grief his publisher Charles, (Stephen Campbell Moore), now involved in politics, has persuaded Stephen to be an active participant in a government study evaluating child care and early education.

Thus Stephen sits at committee meetings and listens as officials and experts talk about “handing over our children to strangers,” a circumstance that the intellectual in Stephen finds bracing and the grieving parent finds unnerving.

The candid and quick dramatization of the breakdown of the marriage is beautifully done. “You always let me down. You never bring her home,” Julie rails at him. And yet, when the two meet later there is profound peace between them, a peace found in the ordinary ritual of meals, laundry, physical affection. But the situation is haunted. The daughter is still missing and Stephen sometimes sees her, he is convinced. A scene in which he invades a schoolroom, certain he’s just seen Kate, is shockingly raw.

At the same time, the drama considers the idea of childhood itself – how adults view children and how they reimagine childhood when they become a parent. The character Charles, removing himself from the stress of work and responsibility, descends back into childish behaviour, creating his own world of play and freedom. Stephen is stunned by this and angry at the deliberate escaping of adult responsibility. And yet he is, as a grieving parent and author, locked in his own obsession with childhood.

The Child in Time is not a thriller about a missing child. It is a threnody, a harrowing portrayal of the dull agony of loss and the disorientation that accompanies it.

Cumberbatch’s performance makes it work. He is so taut, so much on the cusp of collapse that you feel the nagging pain there, you intuit the incomprehension that envelops him. Macdonald is magnificent, too — the quiet torture of the slow-burning mix of blame and affection that Julie feels is viscerally there.

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This is adult drama unsullied by melodrama, about anguish and ultimately about the small hopes that keep the bereaved alive and barely alert.

Also airing this weekend

Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert (Sunday, NBC, 8 p.m.) is what it says, the musical live. Rocker Alice Cooper stars as King Herod, while John Legend plays Jesus and Sara Bareilles is Mary Magdalene.

And don’t forget the adorable documentary Catwalk airs CBC, Sunday, 9 p.m. on CBC Docs POV. It’s a delight.

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