Benedict Cumberbatch has had a great time of it recently. With Sherlock doing so well both commercially and critically and a successful outing as Khan in the new ‘Star Trek’ film, he has fast become a star with his own fanatical following. Cumberbatch could easily have pursued a career as an impressionist considering his talent in the area, but his casting as Julian Assange, iconic creator of WikiLeaks, presented a challenge even for him.
Luckily for us, he is most definitely up to it. He embodies all of Assange’s mannerisms and captures his accent perfectly, making him a joy to watch, especially alongside a great performance from Daniel Bruehl as his work partner Daniel Berg. The performances are the strongest point of the film, and also the area of the film where Bill Condon is most successful, as he also brings a great performance out of David Thewlis in a supporting role as Guardian journalist Nick Davies, who is eager to make use of Assange and Berg’s various revelations.
The film has an interesting plotline, seeking to explore the rise of WikiLeaks and Assange’s relationship with his fellow idealists, as well as the exact evolution of the relationship between Assange and Berg. It’s handling of this is pretty uneven, as it veers between intelligent conversation and what can be grating melodrama, but the portrayals have a large role to play in making it intriguing to watch in spite of its missteps, which are pretty regular and definitely need patching over.
Indeed, Cumberbatch’s consummately effortless performance means that he carries many scenes that may have otherwise been dead in the water by capturing Assange’s insecurities and sense of intellectual superiority brilliantly. Its attempts to immerse you in to the tech savvy world of the WikiLeaks operatives on the other hand only has middling success, but never bores and it does come up with interesting, if contrived, ways to maintain the aura of the technology involved.
‘The Fifth Estate’ is at its best when it is acting as a character study, almost as a docudrama that explores the relationship of Assange and Berg, and at its worst when it blends in a garbled romance subplot and overdramatise events to the point where you feel like you’re watching a sensationalist documentary on daytime television. By turns innovative and run-of-the-mill, it is the snippets of good ideas that shine brightest and blot out the dull and misjudged enough to make the film a worthwhile effort, even if it feels like there’s a film within this film that is more refined, more engrossing and features its great acting performances more prominently than the needless sections that just need ignoring. This confusion, together with its lack of public appeal, means that the film has done extremely badly at the box office on its opening weekend, and one wonders what Condon could have done if he was more adventurous with the project, having cast it so perfectly. It’s a perfect example of a missed opportunity to tell a great story, but what it does manage is a pretty good one. Assange’s story is by no means over, so there is definitely scope for a drama in the future, but very few will be able to inhibit the role as well as Cumberbatch does here, and that’s where the real shame lies.
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