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In praise of Benedict Cumberbatch

It may be controversial to say so, but he's really something, isn't he?

Mr Cumberbatch in Star Trek: Into Darkness. Photograph: Getty Images.

Sometimes it is a critic’s duty to swim against the tide, to stick his or her head above the parapet and speak the truth no matter how controversial it may be. Occasionally one must even stick one’s head above the parapet whilst swimming against the tide, which can really put a nasty crick in the neck. All of which is a preamble to prepare you for the fearlessly contrarian nature of the opinion I am about to offer. Brace yourselves. Here goes:

That Benedict Cumberbatch. He’s really something, isn’t he?

Controversial, eh? I still thrill at the memory of one of the first times that I noticed him—his chilling cameo as a predatory spiv in Joe Wright’s film of Ian McEwan’s Atonement, a case, if ever there was one of “great cameo, shame about the movie.” (If I had the technical expertise I would attach to this blog post an audio file of my uncanny impersonation of Cumberbatch delivering his most blood-curdling line: “Bite it. You’ve got to bite it.”)

It was a sliver of a part but it informed the rest of the picture, and not only because the actions of Cumberbatch’s character had a cataclysmic effect on the narrative. It was also to do with the breadth of interior life that he brought to the part: every gesture and twitch and inflection contributed to our sense that the character was pursuing his own pleasures far beyond the confines of the film we were watching. I wouldn’t be so foolhardy as to attempt to distil the essence of great acting, but an aspect of it must surely be to convince us that the character lives on outside this one film or play or television show. That’s why David Thomson’s speculative fiction collection Suspects, which proposes lives for various characters (such as Norma Desmond from Sunset Blvd, Jake Gittes from Chinatown, Julian Kay from American Gigolo) outside the parameters of their respective movies, is one of the essential film books of all time. It’s rooted in our extra-curricular relationship with the figures flickering on screen.

Anyway, Cumberbatch stole Atonement for me, then proceeded to steal everything he has ever appeared in. The eyes, both naïve and beady, positioned a hair too far apart in that slightly hammerhead-shaped face, seem simply to have access to more of the world than the rest of us; it’s no stretch to imagine a David Attenborough documentary on the wild, lesser-spotted Cumberbatch. Though with roles in Star Trek: Into Darkness, the second instalment in JJ Abrams’s ongoing reinvention of the formerly clapped-out franchise, and The Fifth Estate, in which he plays Julian Assange, “lesser-spotted” is way off the mark. And is it possible for someone to have intelligent lips? I’m not sure. But if it is, then Cumberbatch has them. It’s all in the pursing.

There’s a lot of that in his electrifying performance in Star Trek: Into Darkness. Avoid reading anything about Cumberbatch’s character if you can help it. (Apart from what you’re reading now, obviously: here at the NS, we always blog responsibly.) But it’s enough to say that he brings passion, menace and depth to a part that could have been played with nothing more than relish. British actors have in the past become the playthings of US blockbusters—there were lots of bandwagon-jumpers who didn’t have the wit of, say, Alan Rickman in Die Hard and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves or Jeremy Irons in Die Hard with a Vengeance—but there’s no danger of that happening with Cumberbatch.

Stephen Fry suggested in 2007 that American viewers may not be equipped or inclined to differentiate between good and bad work from British actors. “I sometimes wonder,” he wrote, “if Americans aren't fooled by our accent into detecting a brilliance that may not really be there. I mean, would they notice if Jeremy Irons or Judi Dench gave a bad performance?” His theory was founded on a bogus and rather archaic distinction between British and American acting styles: he suggested that Americans have an inbuilt ability to relax in front of the camera, a quality that evades British performers. He contrasts the “supreme relaxed authenticity of a James Stewart or a George Clooney” with the “brittle contrivances of a Laurence Olivier or a Kenneth Branagh, marvellous as they are.” But this argument revealed much more about Fry’s outdated perspective on trends in British acting than it did about any actual disparities between the UK and US. Who now would posit Olivier or Branagh as representative examples of this country’s acting styles? And relaxation has many gradations. In Star Trek: Into Darkness, Cumberbatch may be playing a character bent on causing widespread carnage and destruction, but no one could mistake him for a man unable to savour his rather gruesome line of work.
  
If British actors are cast as the “supervillain, emotionally constipated academic [and] effete eccentric”, as Fry wrote, that is because these are the only roles offered by unimaginative US studios, not because these are the parts best suited to their talents. But it is also the case that, in many instances, the actor maketh the role. What Cumberbatch does in Star Trek: Into Darkness, even in the simple exchange of eye contact with Mr Spock (the excellent Zachary Quinto), is acting of subtlety and brilliance, no matter that the context is a 3D, effects-heavy Hollywood sequel.

Star Trek: Into Darkness is on release; The Fifth Estate opens later this year.