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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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage