Sunday, December 8, 2013

Six Performances, Five Weeks

During October and November, I was privileged to see a range of Benedict Cumberbatch’s stage and screen performances. Of course, because I’m in Florida, I had to see the stage performances as they were shown on screen in Vero Beach or Palm Beach, but the effect was the same—I was mesmerized. I had previously seen some performances, most notably, Frankenstein. However, that did not reduce my joy at seeing a favorite once more. During five weeks, I watched bits, if not all, of six performances: in Frankenstein, The Fifth Estate, 12 Years a Slave, Little Favour, the National Theatre’s 50th anniversary celebration (broadcast in the U.S. as part of NT Live), and the trailer for August: Osage County. These pivotal roles in his career illustrate that no matter when they were recorded or where they took place, whether they were part of a larger ensemble cast or a starring role, Benedict Cumberbatch is truly one of his generation’s best actors. Even among those who noted, as several movie critics have, that The Fifth Estate did not perform as well as expected, Cumberbatch performed superbly. His performances in recently released films prove that this year’s Britannia award was no fluke, and this autumn’s range of roles appealed to an equally wide range of Cumberbatch fans.

Different Skills for Different Roles

Comparing Frankenstein and The Fifth Estate is truly the apples-and-oranges of comparisons, but think of them as equally important but opposite ends of a scale “measuring” physicality. Although some critics seem to think both productions were “monstrous” (a positive for Frankenstein, not so much for Fifth Estate), they illustrate oppositions in the requirements of a role and Cumberbatch’s performance to meet these requirements. In Frankenstein, as the Creature, Cumberbatch is a miracle of movement. He crawls, bounds, leaps in the air, stretches, and sinuously moves his body around the circular stage. Those who have read Benedict Cumberbatch, in Transition know that the Creature is one of my favorite Cumberbatch roles because of the actor’s physicality and dramatic intensity. Seeing Frankenstein on Halloween was especially key to my enjoyment of the holiday this year. I already knew the performance and the story intimately, at least from an audience perspective, but on the drive home from Vero Beach I thought about the connections among humankind, God, that which we create, and our responsibilities for our acts of creation. That Cumberbatch’s performance still made me think of connections among life, death, eternity, and immortality says a lot about a production that, to date, I have seen more than 20 times.

As WikiLeak’s Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate, Cumberbatch’s is an interesting performance for a completely different reason. I see this as a physically confined role, the opposite of the physically demanding, movement-liberating role of the Creature. Although in Hawking, Cumberbatch was often confined to a wheelchair and had to brilliantly convey Hawking’s emotions within a delimited range of motion, in The Fifth Estate, the actor’s movements are instead constrained by the script. In fact, many critics complained that the story became boring because so often the lead characters were shown only typing on a keyboard, looking at a screen, or, like the audience, watching instant messages scroll. The “action” in The Fifth Estate is intellectual, analyzing the conflicts inherent in determining what should be leaked, when, and by whom. The “chase” is often electronic, as WikiLeaks is shut down, pops up on mirror sites, or releases incendiary information. Cumberbatch’s non-computer activity involves walking, public speaking, or staring moodily at the landscape. (Perhaps his character’s most impressive physical quirk is opening a bottle with his teeth.) The actor’s hands often are either stuffed in pockets or speedily keying information onto a laptop. Because the actor had to rely on subtle facial expression and body language instead of dramatic gestures or displays of physical strength, this performance shows how good Cumberbatch can be on film even when the performance relies more heavily on dialogue and minute variations in body language. The character’s smiles, for instance, tell a lot about his mood and thoughts. When not suffering fools well, Cumberbatch-as-Assange’s tight smile is a mask of forced civility, but when he comes on to a beautiful woman, the smile becomes genuinely animated before turning predatory. Cumberbatch always has an expressive face, but in The Fifth Estate, his body language and line interpretation are even more important in getting the audience to understand Assange.

In 12 Years a Slave, Cumberbatch’s role is one of many in a highly anticipated, highly scrutinized drama that many critics have named Best Picture of the Year long before awards season rolls around. In this large ensemble cast, Cumberbatch’s character stands out as a “good man,” even though he is a slave owner who plays a pivotal role in lead character Platt’s future torture. In period garb once more, Cumberbatch and his dialect convincingly portray Southern U.S. plantation owner Ford. The actor makes Ford’s moral contradictions obvious to the audience, which makes the character all the more troubling to watch. As a Christian, Ford feels compelled to read the Bible to his slaves on Sunday and, in a moment of what many slaveholders would call “weakness,” listens to Platt’s engineering advice and praises the slave when he proves his idea is sound. However, for all the “humane” treatment of his slaves, Ford is still a man with debts and must make a profit from his plantation.

Perhaps what is important to his career is not so much this performance, which, as expected, is note (or accent) perfect, but the fact that Cumberbatch is featured in such an important film. His inclusion in this cast indicates his growing importance in the film industry. Although a small role in 12 Years a Slave will not erase Hollywood’s memory about The Fifth Estate’s poor box office, the film flopped commercially, as many critics also pointed out, because of script problems, not Cumberbatch’s performance. As a fan, I am more impressed that Cumberbatch accepts roles that pique his interest and offer him something new or different to play, even if that role ultimately is not a box office hit. It is unfortunate that Cumberbatch’s first lead in a major motion picture, one that kicked off the Toronto International Film Festival, received so much negative press.

It’s Not the Length, but What You Do With It

Two noteworthy performances fit into the “good things come in small packages” category: Wallace in Little Favour and Rosencrantz in an NT Live scene from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

Indie short Little Favor provides another starring role for Cumberbatch. (The amount of his screen time is greater in this 26-minute film than in some full-length features now in theaters.) What is striking about this role is that Wallace is the entry character for the audience. [Often, as in Sherlock, for example, another character (in this case, John Watson) is the “everyman” who provides insights into the plot or other characters. In The Fifth Estate Daniel Berg leads audiences to the first glimpse of Julian Assange. However, in Little Favour, Cumberbatch not only plays a lead role and is onscreen the most time, but he also is the character the audience follows.] Ultimately, the audience’s “fate” is the same as Wallace’s—to the surprise of both. Crowd funders who supported the making of Little Favour are rewarded with a shocking (and shockingly well-made) short film. I expected Cumberbatch to be good in this indie, but what pleases me more is that he still is not only willing to act in one, especially a short film, but to personally back it and use his considerable celebrity to help get the film made. Coming off Star Trek publicity, Cumberbatch immediately filmed and helped promote Little Favour, not a project every rising star would take on, even for good friends wanting to make the movie.

Of the many Cumberbatch roles seen on screen in Florida during October and November, two originally took place on the stage of the National Theatre. During the National Theatre’s 50th anniversary gala, Cumberbatch tackled a short scene from Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. The scene allowed Cumberbatch to show off his comedic timing in hitting the right beats to get a laugh from the audience. Although he was only on stage a few minutes during the multi-hour showcase, what was more important to me, as one who documents his performances, was to see him join fellow thespians of his generation on the National Theatre’s stage for the curtain call. Actors from the most recent plays took a bow first, with the progression continuing to actors starring in plays a decade ago, then two decades past, until the audience finally honored those who first performed in the National Theatre 50 years ago. Not only was Cumberbatch applauded for his role during the prestigious anniversary production (and resulting NT Live broadcasts worldwide), but he is being lauded as much for his stage performances as those on television or film. This production/broadcast also reminds audiences and critics that Cumberbatch’s career is not going to be that of the typical “Hollywood” star. Not only have some of his most memorable roles to date been on stage, but he seems eager to return, perhaps as early as next year.

He’s Everywhere This Season

Even when I went to the cinema to see a movie that does not star or include Benedict Cumberbatch in its ensemble cast, I was made aware of yet another of his projects coming to a screen near me in the next few weeks. A longer trailer for August: Osage County played before Philomena during the Thanksgiving holiday. I haven’t decided whether it is fortunate for Cumberbatch’s role as Little Charles Aiken to be shown so fully in a trailer. His total screen time in the movie is far less than that of many A-listers, such as Meryl Streep or Julia Roberts, but his “trailer time” is disproportionately greater. Audiences can hear Little Charles’ noticeable Oklahoma accent, see that this sensitive soul is willing to cry in public, and wish to hug him for that shy, endearing smile.

Moviegoers who heard or read bad reviews about The Fifth Estate or worried about watching the brutality of 12 Years a Slave and stayed home may go see August: Osage County. This may be the first time that many U.S. moviegoers will see Cumberbatch in a key role—and know who he is before they go to the theater. Audiences may have found Cumberbatch’s performance memorable in War Horse, for example, but, unless they were already Sherlock fans, few in the U.S. holiday crowds were likely to know his name back then, much less to go to the movie simply because he was in it. Cumberbatch’s higher media profile—including U.S. interviews on talk shows like Katie (in October) and Jimmy Kimmel Live (in December), as well as his appearance at the recent The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug LA premiere and in all those Hobbit trailers—pretty much guarantees greater recognition among a wider audience by the end of this year. Having two roles in much-hyped holiday films Hobbit (December 13 in the U.S.) and August: Osage County (opening on Christmas Day in the U.S.) will only add to his international fame.

Although it is easy to joke that Benedict Cumberbatch may have provided something for everyone during the latter months of 2013, from the intellectualized The Fifth Estate to the star-powered adaptation of August: Osage County, many of these films (12 Years a Slave, Fifth Estate, August: Osage County) are rated R and theoretically limit the audience to adults, which, granted, is a large portion of his fan base. Under-18 fans who came to Cumberbatch because of Sherlock primarily can look forward to The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug (as well as the return of their favorite consulting detective in early 2014). Additionally, because in the U.S. NT Live broadcasts are limited to one-time screenings in a few venues per state, many Cumberbatch fans have to travel miles if they want to see one of the recorded stage performances. I am fortunate to be able to drive 3 to 5 hours to see NT Live broadcasts. If my conversations with audience members before and after Frankenstein and the National Theatre’s anniversary celebration are anything to go by, many new Cumberbatch fans have been made through these broadcasts. (People who attend NT Live screenings may not be film aficionados or may not be aware of PBS’s Sherlock.) If Cumberbatch is not truly providing something for everyone, simply because not everyone can easily view his most recent work, at least he is showing his range of professional interests and skills.

These six performances released in October and November (as well as trailers promoting holiday films and TV series) illustrate that Cumberbatch is an actor who will not limit himself to “either/or” acting challenges: to roles in mainstream films or indies, leads or supporting roles, theatre or film (or television). His is the actor’s quest to stretch himself as a performer, sometimes quite literally, and to take on characters who might not be fashionable or easy to like but are thought-provoking and illuminating. Perhaps that diversity is what Benedict Cumberbatch can uniquely offer the entertainment industry.

Lynnette Porter is the author of Benedict Cumberbatch, In Transition: An Unauthorised Performance Biography, available through MX Publishing, Amazon US and Amazon UK, among other booksellers and book sites.