In praise of Benedict Cumberbatch

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

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.


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

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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The conflict in Yemen is a Civil War by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood