Tuesday, September 30, 2014

TIFF 2014: Benedict Cumberbatch, Transition Completed

Benedict Cumberbatch’s fans began lining King Street hours before The Imitation Game’s first screening at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). The women who graciously let me stand behind them had arrived about 9 a.m. I arrived far later, after a delayed flight from Orlando, but by about 3 on a warm Tuesday afternoon I, too, waited for the stars to arrive. My new friends had secured a prime spot slightly diagonal from the press area at the Princess of Wales theatre. Before long, and well in advance of the stars’ arrivals, both sides of King for a block either side of the theatre were at least six people deep.

Some fans brought signs (which the crowds behind them repeatedly urged to be lowered so more people could glimpse Cumberbatch the moment he arrived). Other fans held copies of the Entertainment Weekly cover of Cumberbatch as Sherlock, Sherlock posters, or postcards for Cumberbatch to sign. Some simply wanted a photo. During the long wait for the black cars to drive up, fans bonded over stories of meeting other actors or standing beside other red carpets. “We should ask him to guess our passwords,” one young woman suggested. “And they’ll all be the same word,” smirked another. Students in a film studies course suggested that they say they someday would be working with him.

Shannon, the TIFF coordinator, said she would signal who was arriving—if the crowds behaved. However, when Cumberbatch turned out to be in one of the first cars, all sense of organization (and in a few cases, all sense) was abandoned. Cumberbatch sprinted from the car and started posing and signing far down the line from where I was standing. The crowd across from the theatre surged forward to the point that security pleaded with everyone to step back so that the first row would not be squished against the barricade. When the actor was only a few yards away from me, a photographer peeled off from the press section to urge him and a section of faithful followers to pose for a few shots—the ones that made all the newspapers the next morning, in Toronto and around the world, alongside news of the film.

Cumberbatch was friendly but not chatty as he interacted with the people around me. He signed my Sherlock card—even returning to sign it because my pen (likely overwhelmed to be in the actor’s presence) failed to work at the crucial moment. He posed for a selfie with a woman a few feet away. He rushed down and up both sides of the street to greet as many fans as possible. When he finally turned toward the media photographers about 20 minutes after arriving, he kept waving at fans as he walked to the press area.

This Benedict Cumberbatch looked very different from the man I watched interact with the crowd and his colleagues at the 2011 BFI screening of “A Scandal in Belgravia.” He was physically larger then (while filming Parade’s End), more casually dressed, and a bit wary of the audience. The fans rushing after Cumberbatch were fewer in number, and security did not need to hover nearby as he signed and posed for fans. The man who walked the TIFF gauntlet of highly enthusiastic fans has grown more accustomed to crowds shouting his name. He was styled handsomely for this event, but he somehow looked slighter when he stood in front of me. Perhaps his stature in the entertainment industry this year made him seem impossibly taller and broader in my memory. At TIFF, the man in the blue suit, with perfectly coiffed hair, large dark glasses, and a sincere demeanor was not larger than life. He was not a slick movie star but a very popular actor starring in the film about to be screened at a major film festival. And that is why I enjoy writing about and following the career of Benedict Cumberbatch.

He may not seek the attention, but he knows how to handle it well at a public event and seems to increasingly enjoy interacting with fans. He pleased even those who didn’t get an autograph or a selfie because he went first to the fans, kept moving up and down the street to greet as many people as possible, and spent a long time by red carpet standards with fans. Then he turned to the media.

“He really cares about his fans” is a line I heard quite a few times as I walked back toward my hotel. If Cumberbatch aimed to please, he scored a bullseye.

A few hours later, as I left a theatre district restaurant, I saw people running against the light—much to the chagrin of a traffic officer, who was trying to keep irate taxi drivers from slaughtering pedestrians. “It’s a red light!” he shouted, but people only scooted across the street faster to get near the back door of the Princess of Wales theatre. I could hear cheers and screams from more than a block away. “That must be a huge star,” the guy next to me said. His friend agreed, and when we managed to stand on the edge of the curb to watch who was leaving the theatre, we could see Benedict Cumberbatch, standing on the door frame of his car to address the hundreds who had been waiting for him. My paparazzi-style grainy photo shows him smiling as he slipped into the car. He rolled down the window and waved as he headed for the airport.

When I first started writing a performance biography about Benedict Cumberbatch a few years ago, my agent and I had trouble convincing publishers that anyone would want to read about this actor. The argument went that if you asked people what they thought of Sherlock, they would say that they like the series, and then if you explained that Benedict Cumberbatch plays Sherlock Holmes, they would say they like him in the role. However, ask the question about Cumberbatch first, and no one would know who he is. I grinned at that memory when I was asked to write a second book about Cumberbatch.

Similarly, even at last year’s TIFF, when Cumberbatch starred in the gala opening film, The Fifth Estate, and fans screamed for him, the argument against Cumberbatch being a true film star began with the statement that his fandom is principally Internet based—he doesn't have instant name recognition among mainstream movie or TV audiences (no many how many writers and chat/talk show hosts joke about its sound or spelling). When Cumberbatch showed up on the TIFF red carpet at the 12 Years a Slave premiere, the cynics who noted the crowds chanting his name commented that the majority of people were there to see producer/star Brad Pitt, and Cumberbatch was merely a bonus. These comments vied for attention with the media touting Cumberbatch as TIFF's "It" man.

A year, especially one in the life of such a busy actor (with high-profile projects on television, radio, film, and stage), makes a big difference in perception. Like last year, Cumberbatch could only stay in Toronto a few days again this year, but they were filled with interviews and red carpet appearances before he flew back across the Atlantic to work. Last year’s post-TIFF job was The Imitation Game, the film that would bring him back to Toronto in 2014. This year The Hollow Crown called him home for an immediate script reading and filming within days of his return. Despite winning numerous awards (including an Emmy) for Sherlock, gaining a phenomenal amount of attention for numerous film roles in 2013, being named the Britannia Awards’ British Artist of the Year, and now being critically acclaimed for his performance as Alan Turing—all indicators of stardom—Cumberbatch is still very much a working actor. He has numerous projects in progress. Even though he coyly feeds the rumor mill with non-statements about possible roles as part of the industry’s game playing, he most often emphasizes his work instead of his celebrity. At TIFF, he transitioned from one fan’s focus on him (as a "delicious"ly sexy man) back to his screen role and his desire to see Turing’s story told. In some important ways this prolific actor’s public persona has not changed with his increasing fame.

When MX Publishing suggested that I write a second book about Benedict Cumberbatch, because the first performance biography was submitted just before Star Trek: Into Darkness went into wide release and so much has happened since, I wondered how I could write an entire book about one year. Silly me. I was writing about Benedict Cumberbatch, which meant I wrote chapters about Star Trek, 12 Years a Slave, August: Osage County, The Hobbit, the most recent series of Sherlock, Cabin Pressure, Little Favour, lots of awards and honors, and ticket sales for Hamlet—among others. I both loved (because Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman, and Steven Moffat were winners) and loathed (because I had to revise a section of the just-submitted manuscript) the Emmys—that award became my stopping point for this book. I’ve already posted in my blog my review of The Imitation Game, and I suspect I am far from finished about writing about Benedict Cumberbatch’s incredible career.

The new book illustrates how this actor’s transition to star has been completed in the past year—and how celebrity is having an impact on his career and public perceptions of the actor. More than the first book, this second one includes greater analysis of the way Cumberbatch’s celebrity image continues to change and what that means for his career and his place within popular culture. I think the book lives up to its name: Benedict Cumberbatch, Transition Completed: Films, Fans, Fame.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

No Imitation--The Imitation Game Proves why Benedict Cumberbatch is the Real Deal

A low-key, yet symbolically striking scene occurs late in The Imitation Game, when mathematician and Enigma code breaker Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) finishes a solo run and rests on his knees in a field. While catching his breath, he calmly watches a glorious sunset. By this point in the film, Turing indeed has run the most important race of his professional career—assisting MI6 during World War II by successfully building a machine to break the Nazis’ daily-changing communication code. As he has been for most of his life, however, Turing in this scene is alone. He faces a return to “normal” society after being ensconced at Bletchley Park with co-workers who gradually became friends. In many ways, his personal triumph at breaking Enigma and gaining some measure of social acceptance is the high point of his life. As the sun slowly sets in heartbreaking beauty, Turing—as well as the audience—wonders what will come next.

Wartime encourages and fuels secrets, and Turing not only has to keep quiet about his government work but the secrets he uncovers about his colleagues—and the ones they learn about him. Turing is a man who often must hide who he is, what he feels, or what he has done, either professionally or personally. As depicted in this film, gaining knowledge is only part of surviving a war. Knowing when to share information, and how much, and with whom, is the key to winning. Turing and his team of brilliant analysts learn this truth at devastating personal costs.

The Imitation Game, on the surface, is a biopic determined to make 21st century audiences aware of Alan Turing’s brilliance and his significant contributions not only in helping the Allies win the war but in leading to our computer-reliant society. It also is an apology to the man who, in 1954, died at the far-too-young age of 41, as a result of Britain’s criminalization of homosexuality. (Queen Elizabeth II officially pardoned Turing last year for his 1952 conviction for homosexuality.) Such themes might seem too serious or tragic for a film hoping to become Oscar’s Best Picture, but the performances by Benedict Cumberbatch in particular, Keira Knightley (as Joan Clarke), and Mark Strong (as Stewart Menzies) make the film more personal and empowering.

This is Cumberbatch’s star turn. Critics who compare his role as Turing with those as Sherlock Holmes or Stephen Hawking miss the point. Yes, Turing is a genius with some serious socialization issues, but audiences will not see Sherlock or Hawking in this performance. When Turing is out of his element in conversation, his expression washes out and his eyes dim. When he is presented with a new puzzle, his eyes come alive, as if the man dully trying to navigate the banalities of common conversation suddenly awakens and knows just what to say. Cumberbatch’s portrayal is surprisingly intimate; emotion leaks from Turing’s eyes, and the stiff upper lip developed as a child’s defense mechanism wobbles. The actor physically inhabits the role, with Turing’s slightly hunched gait and downward gaze, runner’s speed and measured breath, or tremored hand in the scene that surely will gain Cumberbatch many acting nominations in the coming months.

Turing is a difficult man to understand, much less like. He prefers to work alone and looks with disdain at his colleagues [mostly depicted as “types,” such as the dashing Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode)]. For all the drama, the film is surprisingly funny because of Turing’s social faux pas. When his colleagues tell him they are going to lunch, Turing fails to acknowledge the group’s spokesman. After telling Turing for the third time they are leaving, he finally realizes that Turing does not understand he is being asked to go along. Later, when Turing follows Joan Clarke’s suggestion that he try to make friends with his co-workers, he proves he is the world’s worst joke teller. Cumberbatch plays Turing appropriately straight faced, but his performance explains, never mocks, Turing’s social unease.

Knightley and Strong assist greatly with the film’s lighter moments. Both have a deft comedic touch. Knightley is particularly good at showing that Clarke, like Turing, is an outsider, but one who knows how to play the game to succeed as much as a middle-class woman in the 1940s was allowed. This performance is one of Knightley’s strongest in quite a while, and she and Cumberbatch work well together. Clarke and Turing have what Knightley termed a “meeting of the minds”—they understand each other, and Clarke tutors Turing on how to understand or be understood by everyone else. Strong, as Turing’s MI6 “handler,” does not even need dialogue. He can convey wry humor by lifting an eyebrow, and his character slyly manipulates the intelligentsia at Bletchley Park, sometimes, it seems, for his own amusement.

Biographer Andrew Hodges expressed dismay during filming that he feared Turing’s and Clarke’s relationship would become a standard movie love story. Rest assured, it is not. The film does deal with discrimination because of gender or sexual orientation, but its depictions of love do not require sex scenes. I did find details from Hodges’ Alan Turing: The Enigma useful, particularly in the flashbacks—narrated by Cumberbatch—to young Turing’s unhappy school days. Alex Lauther, playing young Alan, does not mimic Cumberbatch’s mannerisms or delivery, but the parallelism between the performances enhances the connection between the flashbacks and the main story. Audiences can believe that Lauther’s bullied public schoolboy grows up to become Cumberbatch’s under-duress stutterer who names his finest mechanical creation for his dearest school-days friend.

“You picked a good one,” TIFF artistic director Cameron Bailey assured The Imitation Game’s second-screening audience (who, even with tickets, waited hours outside in a queue wrapping around blocks in order to get a good seat). A few minutes later, director Morten Tyldum described the way the cast had come together as a family to make this film, but he explained that now it is not just his film, or the cast’s—“It is now yours.”

The Imitation Game
is a fine gift but not a perfect film. It successfully introduces more people to the amazing, and victimized, Alan Turing. It is an intriguing history that intercuts wartime newsreel footage with the actors’ scenes. One critic dubbed it “your grandpa’s new favorite movie,” and many filmgoers may not immediately gravitate to a story about World War II code breakers. It has an uplifting theme, even if the tagline, “Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of that do the things no one can imagine,” is cumbersome and underscored once or twice too often; the audience gets the point the first time. However—The Imitation Game presents Benedict Cumberbatch in, if not his strongest work to date, at least one of his most enlightening, moving performances. Whereas the film sometimes is heavy handed in manipulating audience emotions, Cumberbatch’s portrayal is not. And Turing's story needs to be told again now.

“Are you paying attention?” Turing asks in an early scene. “Good . . . . You will miss things, important things. I am in control because I know things that you do not know.” Turing’s words could be Cumberbatch’s instructions for those who already expect a great deal from his acting but might overlook details in his emotionally layered, well-researched portrayal. Certainly, Cumberbatch incorporates Turing’s expressions or speech patterns into his acting, but he goes far deeper. When, for example, Turing’s work is threatened, Cumberbatch-as-Turing frantically attempts to protect his machine, revealing the boy’s desperation within the genius’ zeal to save “Christopher” from bureaucrats who do not understand.

“You will not judge until I am finished,” Turing commands. The judging process on the way to Oscar and Bafta is long and riddled with campaign anxiety, as well as potentially fickle voters. Yet the film festivals’ audience reaction has been positive. The Princess of Wales TIFF audience, clearly moved by the film, applauded loudly and eagerly discussed it on the way out. A crowd gathered to drop their tickets into the bin to vote for The Imitation Game as fan favorite. The previous evening’s screening, attended by director and cast, received a standing ovation. A few days earlier, the Telluride Film Festival applauded the film, especially Cumberbatch’s performance. In a few days more, the film will make its European debut at the BFI London Film Festival, where Cumberbatch’s hometown crowd surely will embrace his work.

I won’t say that The Imitation Game is the high point of Cumberbatch’s career, even if it eventually earns him an Oscar. I still expect a great deal of him and look forward to his future work, and, if he is the actor I believe he is, the roles and opportunities are more gratifying even than the many awards he continues to receive. I respect, admire, and enjoy this performance because Cumberbatch makes Turing human—not machine like—and accessible and memorable. The Imitation Game is good, but Benedict Cumberbatch is excellent.