Defining Roles – Benedict Cumberbatch

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I had the idea for this new series of posts after reading a number of reviews of The Imitation Game, which declared Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Alan Turing as the performance of his career to date. I found the comment interesting as, although I thought he was excellent, as a fan of his work for a number of years now and after perhaps having seen almost everything he has ever done, I could think of roles which, for me, were worthy of just as much attention and accolade as Turing.

So, I’ve decided to start a new series of posts, under the header “Defining Roles” in which I’ll discuss the performances of some of my favourite actors / actresses across their careers, not just on screen but across all mediums.

Therefore there seemed no better place to start than with Benedict Cumberbatch himself and below are my 10 favourite roles from his career so far. For me, these are his defining roles, as they capture the range of such a versatile actor, both emotionally, physically and tonally, but also across stage, screen and radio. I can certainly say it’s been a tough choice!

1. James – Third Star (2010)

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A simply heartbreaking role as James. Photo Source: Pogobear on Tumblr

For me, this remains the most powerful role of Benedict Cumberbatch’s career to date. With his star on the rise, it was great that he was involved in this small independent film. James has terminal cancer and has a wish to once more visit Barafundle Bay with his three lifelong friends. It’s a beautifully moving film, as we see over their journey secrets confessed, feelings addressed and how important strong friendships are in life.

Benedict superbly brings James to life, as he deals with the anger, fear and sadness at not having more time, while also being determined to treasure each and every moment he has left, with those he cares about most. It is a performance that makes me laugh and cry and appreciate the joy of true friendships. If you have yet to see Third Star, you really need to do so.

2. Stephen Hawking – Hawking (BBC TV, 2004)

It still astonishes me a decade on that this incredible performance of Stephen Hawking did not win Benedict a BAFTA (this was his first nomination). The 90 minute BBC drama takes us through Hawking’s life, from the age of 21 to the completion of his PhD on the revolutionary idea of The Big Bang two years later and was the first time I’d ever considered his life as a young man, rather than the image we all have of him as he is today. To deliver such a strong, powerful performance so early in his career should have left no one with any doubt that he would go on to be a success.

Over the course of the drama we see Hawking’s illness begin to take a firmer hold on him as he carries on with such fierce determination. Everything about this performance is impressive, its physicality, wit, intelligence and vulnerability are all so realistically conveyed that by the end I’d almost forgotten I wasn’t watching Hawking himself. I will certainly be curious to see how Eddie Redmayne’s upcoming portrayal compares to this one.

3. Christopher Tietjens – Parade’s End (BBC/HBO, 2012)

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Adelaide Clements as Valentine with Tietjens

If asked in interviews what his favourite role has been to date, Benedict himself has singled out Christopher Tietjens and I can understand why, as it’s a truly stunning character and performance by him. I’ve tried to read this novel in the past and never made it to the end (I must try again in 2015) and having it brought to life in Tom Stoppard’s incredible adaptation was fantastic.

He is not a straightforward character and through the role we see a man caught in no man’s land between old and new England and his struggle to do what is right according to his moral compass, even when at odds with those around him and possibly at the expense of his own happiness. The scene in which he describes the trenches to Silvia is heart wrenching and truly highlights how the experience affected the brave men who were there. Then there is his relationships with Silvia and the forward-thinking Valentine, with whom his chemistry leaps from the screen. Utterly beautiful from start to finish.

4. Sherlock Holmes – Sherlock (BBC, since 2010)

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Undoubtably his most well known role remains that of Sherlock Holmes, which has helped propel his rise of recent years up the Hollywood A-list. I love the show and am thrilled at both its success and the success that has followed for its superb ensemble cast. Growing up with the image of Sherlock as an old Victorian figure, Cumberbatch’s portrayal has revitalised the character for a new generation. It enables him to showcase his ability to tackle drama, heightened emotion, comedy and even action through an incredibly interesting and multi-layered character and it is certainly one of his defining roles, which I hope will carry on for years to come.

5. David Scott-Fowler – After The Dance (National Theatre, 2010)

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The superb Nancy Carroll as Joan with Benedict in After The Dance

After The Dance will forever have a special place in my heart and remains my favourite of all the theatre productions I have seen to date. It was also my first experience of seeing Mr Cumberbatch on stage and I’m so pleased I was able to see it twice over its limited run.

At its heart, the play is about love – the sadness of loving the wrong person, loving someone who you do not think loves you or to whom you dare not admit your true feelings or loving someone enough to realise the best thing for them is to walk away from them. It is this aspect of the play which has such an impact on me and very few pieces of theatre I have seen have moved me quite so much.  I still find it incredible how Benedict seems to transform into someone so much older than himself in this role. As David Scott-Fowler he not only looks older, but through his voice, mannerisms and the way he holds himself, you cannot quite believe it is the same person. The final act requires a great deal of emotion from him and he conveys it all superbly and you can’t take your eyes off him for a moment. You can read my full review here.

6. Jimmy Porter – Look Back In Anger (The Royal Court’s Playwright’s Playwrights season at Duke of York’s Theatre, 2012)

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Director Polly Stenham with the Look Back In Anger cast

Another stage role that truly impressed me and again made me appreciate the joy of live performance was Benedict’s involvement in the Royal Court Theatre’s Playwright’s Playwrights one off rehearsed reading of John Osbourne’s Look Back In Anger, in which he played the lead role of Jimmy Porter, alongside Rebecca Hall as his wife, Anna Maxwell Martin, Matt Ryan and Julian Wadham. For anyone yet to experience a rehearsed reading, the actors simply sit on the stage, script in hand and read the play, this time with only a day to prepare. There is some physicality depending on the role and the actor but no set, costume and limited props and it’s an interesting experience for anyone with a love of theatre to see.

What made this a defining role for me was that it wasn’t a role I’d imagined him playing, but yet by the end I would have signed up to fund a full production! All the cast were excellent, particularly Rebecca Hall, whose chemistry with Cumberbatch made the prospect of Parade’s End even more exciting at the time. However Benedict truly made this more than a reading. He didn’t have a bound, hardback script and was constantly on his feet, folding the pages over on his paper copy, giving as much performance as there could be, bringing a depth to the deeply unlikeable Porter. He is cruel, hurtful and treats those around him dreadfully and yet Cumberbatch was able to bring out the more vulnerable side to him as well. It highlighted yet again how talented he is and how he doesn’t need all the trimmings of a production to create very real, powerful characters.

7. Alan Turing – The Imitation Game (2014)

2014, THE IMITATION GAMEIt may not be the performance of his career for me, but his role as Alan Turing in The Imitation Game is still superb and worthy of the praise and attention it is receiving from critics and filmgoers alike. It is certainly a role which I cannot imagine any other actor of today being able to play.

Having little to go on as to Turing’s voice, mannerisms etc. the role needed an actor capable of creating something completely believable and true to the man being portrayed and Cumberbatch does this so perfectly. His Turing is a loner by nature, uncomfortable with social interaction and far more at ease focussing on logic and statistics. One of the skills he is always able to bring to a role is the ability to convey so much internal emotion and thought with little or no dialogue. There are moments in The Imitation Game where you simply look in to his eyes and can see everything Turing is considering, discarding, confused by or struggling to cope with and this certainly makes you care about the man himself. You can read my full review of the film here.

8. “John Harrison” – Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013)

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When it was announced that Benedict Cumberbatch was to be the villain in the new Star Trek film there was excitement and some uncertainty as to whether he was the right fit for a blockbuster action film of this scale. I thought this film was brilliant and that his portrayal of “John Harrison” lifted its overall quality level. This isn’t just a two-dimensional villain and Cumberbatch is able to convey the rationale for his actions in such a way that the audience actually begins to understand his motivations. It’s also a brilliantly simmering performance, as you are constantly waiting for Harrison to erupt and Benedict is able to sustain this anticipation as his calm, clinical villain bides his time until his full rage emerges. A smart, mature role in a genre where you perhaps weren’t expecting it.

9. The Monster – Frankenstein (National Theatre, 2011)

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There were aspects of Danny Boyle’s production of Frankenstein that I didn’t like (some of the script and certain supporting characters felt weak and wooden), but the central performances by Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch, combined with the clever idea to have them swap roles each day, lifted this production to be better than in lesser hands it perhaps could have been. I managed to see both versions live and although both were enjoyable, it was the “Cumber Creature” that impressed me the most and that’s a testament to Mr Cumberbatch seeing as I saw the very first preview performance. It’s always thrilling to be among the first audience to see a new play and there was certainly lots of anticipation in the Olivier that night. The role of the Creature is undoubtably the tougher of the two, requiring the actor to effectively move through all stages of life over the course of the evening.

Watching Benedict emerge from the cocoon on stage and spend the next 20 minutes convincingly embodying a newly born creature, twitching and testing its limbs and vocal chords was simply astonishing (and no that’s not because of the lack of clothes, which must have been daunting for both actors!). He achieved a difficult task in the role, in that I sympathised with the Creature and despite his later horrifying actions, was still able to see how the prejudices of those around him ultimately led to what he becomes, from the innocent newborn of 90 minutes before. It’s wonderful that through NT Live Encore more and more people have been able to see this production.

10. Captain Martin Crieff – Cabin Pressure (BBC Radio 2008 – 2014)

056Making my final choice was a difficult one, with so many other impressive roles to pick from. In the end I have chosen a role vastly lighter in tone, in the form of Martin Crieff in John Finnemore’s wonderfully entertaining Radio 4 comedy series Cabin Pressure. Beginning in 2008, I only discovered it in 2011 and was lucky enough to go along to a recording of it in London that year. The hilarity is set at MJN Air, a one-plane charter airline run by Carolyn Knapp-Shappey (Stephanie Cole). Alongside her in this venture is her crew of Crieff and First Officer Douglas Richardson (the superbly talented Roger Allam), not to mention the hopeless Arthur (played by Finnemore himself). The series was a success in its own right but unsurprisingly, the growing attention on Cumberbatch has also brought a whole new audience to this radio drama (ticket requests for the recording of its final episode broke records). It’s a refreshing change of tone and pace for him, which allows the thrill of live performance but the benefit of repeat takes.

Finnemore’s writing is witty, sharp and heartfelt as MJN Air is ultimately a little family unit with all the usual family dynamics and it’s lovely that Benedict has made sure he continued with it until the very end, highlighting that it’s not just about Hollywood movies for him. Being able to see this recorded live was a real treat and as I’ve sensibly saved some episodes for later listening, meaning I still have a few hours left of Cabin Pressure to enjoy leading up to the final episode, to be aired on BBC Radio 4 this Christmas. If you want something to make you laugh and raise your spirits I can’t recommend it enough.

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So…..that’s my list. Those that almost made it include Patrick Watts from Starter For Ten (2006), Wallace from short film Little Favour (2013), Little Charles from August: Osage County (2013) and for something very different Smaug from The Hobbit series.

I’m sure people will have there own views, which will no doubt differ from mine, but that’s one of the joys of an actor capable of great range and variety. I’m also sure this list will continue to evolve over his career, with already some exciting prospects on the horizon (Marvel’s Doctor Strange, Hamlet on stage – see my fantasy cast here and Richard III for the BBC Hollow Crown series to name just three). I look forward to hearing your choices!

Coming next, one of the actresses I have admired for years and whose career seems to only keep going up – Gillian Anderson.

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