Not Pretty Enough For The Pictures

Benedict Cumberbatch is hard to watch as Julian Assange and a new Juliet brings to mind Shrek’s bride

Peter Whittle

So, as Rod Liddle once asked his readers of Harriet Harman: Benedict Cumberbatch — would you? According to the papers I generally read, a lot of you would. Mr Cumberbatch is certainly today’s Special on the heartthrob menu, but oddly I’ve met very few women (and not a single gay man) who swoon at the mention of this stranger-than-fiction name. Which confirms my feeling that the celebrity culture in which we have been drenched is now sorting itself out along class and taste lines. Cumberbatchis strictly in what I would term the broadsheet/commentariat division, i.e. he appeals to the lifestyle columnists and the people who read them. He is posh, educated and vaguely lefty-hip, in other words, without possessing something so vulgar as a square jaw or bulging lats. The notion that brawn is somehow lower class remains surprisingly strong, and if Peter André is Heat magazine, then Cumberbatch is Guardian Weekend.  

I am obviously naff as hell, as I’m afraid that I find his face hard to look at for long. This is a distinct disadvantage when it comes to reviewing his performances, but the truth is that his baroque plainness distracts from his undoubted gifts as an actor. In The Fifth Estate, the new film about WikiLeaks and Julian Assange, he is in virtually every scene, although I concede that he is inspired casting here, for Assange, who resembles an odd mixture of the camp actor John Inman and the Tory MP David Davis, is himself distinctly weird-looking. For some reason the makers of this “ripped from the headlines” drama made the decision to play this up, giving Cumberbatch a drooping, rat-tail hairdo and a virtually albino complexion. He looks as if he has strayed in from a vampire or zombie movie (the director Bill Condon indeed made some of the teen Twilight films).

The omnipresence of this odd central character helps cover for the fact that, despite the currency and importance of the issues being portrayed, The Fifth Estate is almost devoid of drama. There is manic, jerky cutting and urgent music. Destinations flash up on screen, people arrive hurriedly at airports yet never seem to go anywhere, endless, endless computer screens are opened and then slammed shut purposefully. The screenplay is based on a couple of books, one of them by Assange’s associate Daniel Domscheit-Berg (played by Daniel Brühl), and his relationship with the great man — which starts out as one of drooling sycophancy and ends up mired in predictable disillusionment — provides some form of dramatic arc. Inside this, however, most of the action takes place on a computer keyboard, making it very, very tedious to watch. Media folk in the know will have some fun watching the portrayals of the Guardian‘s Alan Rusbridger and Ian Katz, but they will mean nothing to most of the audience. And for legal reasons nothing can be made of the various sex cases hanging over Assange’s head.

This leaves us with the one remaining question: is the film pro or anti? I’d say it steers a line straight down the middle, veering perhaps occasionally to the latter. Assange is certainly not treated with any great sympathy — that he’s a complete narcissist is never in doubt — but a Guardian journalist is allowed a speech, above swelling music, about the new unstoppable freedom of the internet age. So, a mixed message perhaps. On top of it all, the sheer enormity of the Guardian‘s recent publication of Edward Snowdon’s leaked intelligence rather puts all this in the shade. That’s the problem with ripping things from the headlines-events have a way of overtaking you.

Parkland, on the other hand, is a story ripped straight from the history books, and not for the first time. It is a straightforward account of the events surrounding the assassination of John F. Kennedy, from the perspective of the ordinary people in Dallas who found themselves in extraordinary circumstances: the nurses and doctors at Parkland Hospital, where the dying Kennedy was brought, to be followed later by the mortally wounded Lee Harvey Oswald; the onlooker who took the most famous — and vital — footage of the shooting; the head of security; and Oswald’s brother. 

The whole thing is sunk, however, not just by over-familiarity (it has presumably been released to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the assassination), but by lack of dramatic focus. There might really have been something here if the makers had concentrated on the hospital staff and made it into a sort of deluxe, one-off episode of ER. As it stands, it feels like a whole series of sub-plots in search of a story — and one to which we know the ending.

It is still possible at the cinema to get away from real events, and for those who want the guarantee of good familiar material there’s the newest version of Romeo and Juliet, adapted this time by Downton man-of-the-moment Julian Fellowes and directed by one Carlo Carlei. But beware: you might think it would be hard to mess this story up, but somehow they’ve managed it more successfully than if they’d gone the whole hog and cast Benedict Cumberbatch as one half of the star-crossed couple.

The settings are lovely, if somewhat underpopulated, and there’s no gimmickry. Romeo is played by the supernaturally good-looking Douglas Booth, of TV’s Great Expectations, but unfortunately poor Juliet, Hailee Steinfeld, is simply no match for him. This actress really impressed with her performance in the remake of True Grit, but here she speaks her lines as if by rote. More importantly, it is simply impossible to believe that Romeo would be struck down by lust or love for this dumpy little creature, who occasionally brings to mind Shrek’s bride. Both players have to have an ethereal quality about them — has any one of us forgotten the gorgeous Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting in the 1968 Zeffirelli version, the one which launched a thousand A-level English courses? In certain circumstances, beauty really does need to be on the outside. 

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