These are balmy times for Cumberpeople. Their beloved Benedict Cumberbatch is starring in three new movies, and his performances in all of them could easily win awards. It is presumably thanks to Covid that the films are arriving all at once, like the proverbial London buses. Each reveals a different side of Cumberbatch, showcasing variously his comedic charm, his sensitivity and even, most unlikely of all, his blunt machismo. One is a spy movie, one is a fey Victorian-era biopic and the other a western. The characters he portrays have nothing in common and yet he seems born to play them all.
Cumberbatch was nominated for an Oscar for portraying Second World War codebreaker Alan Turing in The Imitation Game (2014). Since then, he has racked up his share of credits in blockbusters (Marvel’s Dr Strange, Star Trek and Hobbit movies) without doing anything for the big screen that has remotely matched his work for TV (Sherlock, Patrick Melrose, Parade’s End, etc, etc) or the stage. Some of his films have even been surprisingly clunky. There was very little voltage at all (as every reviewer punned) about The Current War (2017) in which he starred as inventor Thomas Edison. The disgraced producer Harvey Weinstein had interfered with the wires behind the scenes, tinkering so heavily in the editing that the film’s director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon came close to blowing a fuse, but that didn’t explain the lead actor’s stilted American accent or his unusual lack of charisma.
Nor was Cumberbatch’s uncanny performance as WikiLeaks whistleblower Julian Assange in Bill Condon’s The Fifth Estate (2013) greeted with as much acclaim as might have been anticipated. With pale skin and lank white hair, he looked very like Assange and captured the character’s crusading zeal, narcissism and persecution complex, but the film itself was too scattergun to make any impression on awards voters.
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