The rigours of time have become an emerging theme in the work of director Michael Winterbottom. 2004’s 9 Songs charted the effects of sustained exposure to Zane Lowe-approved indie music on one once-promising relationship, but as its young lovers looked to have all the time in the world to recover, it was hard much to care. More engaging were the weary, ageing travellers in 2010’s The Trip: Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan, playing themselves as men suddenly aware their time had started to run out.

Further instalments of The Trip are promised – suggesting this could become a droll UK equivalent of the Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight experience – but for the moment, we have a theatrical release for Winterbottom’s Everyday, as screened on Channel 4 before Christmas. The new film foregrounds a pair observing time in very different ways: while Ian (John Simm) is behind bars in a London prison, his wife Karen (Shirley Henderson) shepherds their young kids – two boys, two girls, played by the real-life Kirk siblings – from their Norwich home each week to visit him.

Winterbottom and co-writer Laurence Coriat are interested in the quotidian tensions lurking within this arrangement: the stresses of having to travel cross-country, by bus and (inevitably delayed) train to spend but an hour with the person you love, the playground squabbles the lads will get into when the name-calling begins, the long-term denial of any physical affection. In the prison sequences, camera and sound strain to show us how vital these snatched moments of intimacy have become for Ian and Karen – but how fleeting they are, too. It’s hard to say what you feel with young ones around, and there’s a reason the lags are searched at the end of visiting time: so they can’t take anything more comforting than the odd glance or word back to their cells with them.

Winterbottom’s ever-expanding list of credits serves as its own evidence of a filmmaker determined to gather rosebuds whilst he may, but he’s struggled of late to shake the air of sketchiness around even his better projects. Everyday is itself composed of grabbed moments, having been filmed over five years between other commitments, and its first half feels unusually clipped: you’ll have to listen smart to catch what Ian’s actually behind bars for, not least because the Michael Nyman score is busily working to lend a sort-of grandeur to these fragments of daily life.

The great gain of this approach is a documentary-like immediacy: in immersing ourselves in the couple’s routine, we end up watching the passage of time itself. Everyone on screen gets older – and is seen to get older: the kids were presumably selected not just for their expressiveness, but because they were nearing the point of dramatic growth spurts. Amid them, Simm and Henderson do highly moving, impressively consistent work as a pair with graspable human needs and failings, desperate to hold this relationship together for the good of their children.

Everyday remains a fragmented record of a fragmented existence, perhaps a commonplace of Broken Britain: it evokes lives lived in drips and drabs, neither here nor there. Yet Winterbottom salvages moments to cherish, and moments of regret, before a final shot that opens the film out for good, affording this family unit the two qualities they’ve been so badly looking for: time and space.

Everyday opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

Everyday Trailer