Benedict Cumberbatch. The name doesn’t exactly come “trippingly off the tongue,” does it? As his full name is Benedict Timothy Carlton Cumberbatch, one could well imagine some agent or manager advising him to use the middle two and skip the first and last. However it’s already taken by his actor father, Timothy Carlton, who cleverly rid himself of his last name, Cumberbatch, to embark upon his career. Carlton is a journeyman player of longstanding (Downton Abby is among his credits) but he’s never achieved the lightning-in-a-bottle fame of the son who kept the family name.
In an interview he gave this year to the Guardian he notes, ”When I started, I just assumed I couldn’t be called Benedict Cumberbatch. ‘But then, one day, I told someone in the business what I was really called and they said, ‘That’s great, that’s something you can use to stand out.” Clearly the name “stands out.” For it surely doesn’t sound like that of someone on the verge of international superstardom. But the traction Cumberbatch has acquired in a relatively short space of time working on the stage (Danny Boyle’s much-discussed National Theater production of Frankenstein with Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller alternating the roles of the doctor and his creature from performance to performance) and television (the very popular modern day set Sherlock—as in Holmes—series) has accelerated in light of his performances in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Star Trek: Into Darkness, 12 Years A Slave, August Osage County, and most impressive of all, The Fifth Estate. Next year he’ll appear in no less than seven films. Not all of them offer leading roles, but clearly the most interesting is The Imitation Game in which he’ll play legendary World War II cryptographer and gay rights martyr Alan Turing. He should make a meal of it. But over and above individual roles Benedict Cumberbatch boasts a stamina every bit as impressive as his acting ability. He seems to be everywhere. And everywhere he appears he’s a welcome sight.
These films that have made Benedict Cumberbatch a name to conjure with are all quite different. The dedicated spy of Tinker Tailor has little in common with the put-upon son of dysfunctional southwestern family is August Osage County, the sci-fi villain of Star Trek: Into Darkness, or the slyly sinister Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate. Yet Cumberbatch embodies them all with a minimum of fuss and nary a hint of narcissism. Whether they be as flamboyant as Assange or as modest as the religious-minded plantation owner in 12 Years a Slave, he always seems to deliver precisely what’s required, especially when it comes to people who seem to at war with themselves. This is particularly notable in 12 Years a Slave. For William Ford, the man Cumberbatch plays in this dramatization of a real-life account, is arguably the most humane of the slavers who come to own the film’s hero Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor).
Yet in his very first appearance he accepts the word of a slave trader (Paul Giamatti) that there is nothing wrong with depriving a black woman access to her children—who are of more value to him when sold separately. The look of matter-of-fact acceptance on Cumberbatch’s face exemplifies what Hannah Arendt, when speaking of the Nazi era, called “The Banality of Evil” The fact that, according to an on-line study of the family name, the fact that besides its Cheshire origin, “The Cumberbatch surrname has an additional point of origin—Barbados. After August, 1834, Barbados slaves, previously the property of white Cumberbatch families, were freed and many took the surname.” It’s a fascinating detail, yet one senses form watching the film that he didn’t need to draw on it for his performance. Likewise while the real Julian Assange is available as an acting resource, one can easily see that his performance in The Fifth Estate proceeds as much from his own imagining of what it would be like to challenge world authority with little more than a laptop computer.
If he can be said to have a specialty it’s subtle menace as shown in this excerpt from Star Trek: Into Darkness
He further explicates this technique on “The Graham Norton Show”
When he was a student at the exclusive Harrow school, Cumberbatch was introduced to the works of one of the school’s most illustrious graduates, the playwright Sir Terence Rattigan. It was because of his exposure to the master of such “well-made plays” as The Browning Version, The Winslow Boy, and Separate Tables that Cumberbatch began his acting career. For that reason it’s fitting to close with the documentary he made about Rattigan. As men they couldn’t be more different. But as artists dedicated to craftsmanship they couldn’t be more alike. Benedict Cumberbatch may be the very picture of modern acting. Yet within this modernity is a tradition that gives his work backbone and heft. Rattigan would have loved Cumberbatch in The Fifth Estate. And I, for one, can think of no higher praise.
(The Rattigan Enigma Part 1)
(The Rattigan Enigma Part 2)