Benedict Cumberbatch is hugely popular these days, with an obsessive fanbase that goes by a number of creative names (Cumberbitches chief among them), and a growing demand among the leading Hollywood filmmakers. He’s already appeared in some of the biggest blockbusters of the last couple years (The Hobbit, Star Trek Into Darkness) and has an internationally acclaimed turn as Sherlock Holmes under his belt in the modern day adaptation Sherlock. He has a way about him that allows him to change his face without makeup or prosthetics – an inherent bearing of gesture and expression that perfectly conveys the foundations of his character, making each distinctly and recognizably unique. And with The Imitation Game, the story of the mathematician Alan Turing and the Enigma Code, coming out this week and Cumberbatch getting lots of Oscar buzz for his performance, it might be high time to take a look at some of his best work.
6. Parade’s End
This is the BBC mini-series adaptation of the novel about a principled and stoic man named Christopher Tietjens and his free spirited, unruly wife. There’s plenty of drama and conflict between them, and while Tietjens is ultimately admirable and sympathetic, he’s not always entirely likeable because of his condescending morality. There’s something distinctly unattractive, almost irritating, about the set of his mouth – a stern determination barely covering an inherent weakness. Again, his face is exactly the same as it ever was, but somehow seems completely different.
5. Star Trek Into Darkness
Cumberbatch’s mouth might be one of his most valuable assets as an actor, and one of my favorites to watch. Very often, more than anything else, it is the set of his mouth that changes the most about his face. As the baddie in Star Trek Into Darkness, Cumberbatch plays a super solider – highly intelligent, super strong, and dangerously self-righteous regarding his superiority. He is disciplined and tactically advanced, and incredibly callus. His jaw is set rigidly, his mouth displaying a touch of cruelty. One of my favorite moments during this movie is when he takes over the opposing ship and prepares to destroy the enterprise. The twisted, cruel smile he gives seems impossible for any face to express, and strikes fear and amazement into the heart of the viewer. It is, without a doubt, a moment. Anyone I’ve ever described it to knows exactly what I’m talking about and expresses their own amazement at Cumberbatch’s versatility of expression.
I am a huge Holmesian and am very picky about my adaptations. I’ve seen some pretty bad ones too, so don’t get me started on that. I wasn’t sure at first how I felt about this Cumberbatch guy, dashing around town in his cool coat and cheekbones. But there’s a lot of thoughtful complexity that goes into the writing of the character, especially about aspects of his personality that might be uncommon or unaccepted ideas in normal society – like the nature of sociopathy or asexuality. He’s a man with an incredible mind who through the course of the series becomes a good man, despite his social dysfunctions. And Cumberbatch plays these complexities with care and panache, aided hugely by his natural chemistry with co-star Martin Freeman, himself an admirable Watson.
Cumberbatch actually got to know Stephen Hawking for his role in this biopic about the famous astrophysicist. Cumberbatch is changed greatly by just a pair of glasses and his too long, too straight, limp hair that seems constantly in his face. But there’s a slackness to his face, the integrity of which seems barely held together by a great effort. As a result, his expressions are twisted interpretations of his feelings, a kind of lopsided charm shining through his failing face. Add to that the amazing and believable physicality displayed throughout the movie as Hawking’s condition worsens, and you have one heck of a performance. With Eddie Redmayne’s interpretation of Hawking in the recently released The Theory of Everything, it might be interesting to compare the two performances.
2. 12 Years a Slave
Cumberbatch was very briefly in Steve McQueen’s gut-wrenching tale of slavery as a kindly slave owner. While he’s seems like a good man, who treats his slaves well and without the wanton sadism of Michael Fassbender’s character, he is, when it comes down to it, still a slave owner. No amount of civility is going to change that fact, and while we appreciate his charm and humor and the value he places on his slaves, he proves himself a despicable coward in the end. Just when Solomon Northup thinks he may be able to confide in his master about his situation and ask for his help, Cumberbatch’s character refuses to hear it, putting his own well being above a man’s freedom. While brief, his appearance is affecting, telling us that charm and humaneness don’t always make a man good, that his worth will always be determined by his actions and decisions.
Cumberbatch and his fellow Sherlock Jonny Lee Miller co-starred in this stage adaptation of the Mary Shelly novel directed by Danny Boyle. The show ran at the National Theater in London for a short time, with Cumberbatch and Miller alternating the roles of Frankenstein and his Monster. If you really want to see Cumberbatch’s versatility in action, compare the two performances. The differing physicalities alone are astounding, with the Monster all potency and uncoordinated, determined momentum, and Frankenstein all cultured poise and sophistication. And it just occurred to me we haven’t even talked about that voice yet! Yes, the voice is impressive. The differing levels of articulation between the characters are also fairly staggering. You’ll never have a better opportunity to test an actor’s skills than by seeing him play different characters within the same material.