Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Has Benedict Cumberbatch...

A)...been typecast?

2)...revealed a lack of range as an actor?

C)...been in a number of similar roles that directly appeal to my sensibilities?

Four) None of the above.

And, really, what does it matter that I've had some insight as to the oeuvre of Benedict Cumberbatch that (most likely) hundreds of thousands of fans have come to previously, most likely years before this?  Not one whit.  But, this is a place for me to ramble on about unimportant things, and a clearing house for thoughts that get stuck in my head, which I am unable to be rid of until I have written them down.  So, if you choose to read further, you're stuck (nothing like trying to sell you on this, eh?) 

So, the answer to the above:  probably number four, but that's no fun . . . so, on with the show. 

My wife and I recently watched the broadcast of the National Theater's production of Danny Boyle's FRANKENSTEIN, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller.  What made this presentation of the play noteworthy was the fact that Cumberbatch and Miller traded roles, between Victor Frankenstein and the monster, on alternating nights.  The National Theater provided both presentations, and it was fascinating how different they were, despite not only the same script being utilized, but what would appear to be the same direction from Boyle for the two main characters. 

The first night we watched Miller as the monster and Cumberbatch as Frankenstein.  It was a wonderful experience, one I wish I could have seen in the theater.  Cumberbatch was superb as the arrogant scientist, while Miller's monster was not only intimidating but also incredibly sympathetic.  I felt horribly for what he went through, in those two hours.  But, upon finishing it -- and being a huge fan of Cumberbatch -- I was anxious to see how he would tackle the role of the monster, as that was the primary role, as far as I was concerned.  Put simply, and stated succinctly by my wife when we discussed it, Cumberbatch did not lend himself as well to the character of the monster, even as Miller's Frankenstein left something to be desired.  Without having a far better understanding of the theater, as well as access to these presentations so that I might watch them multiple times, I can't put my finger on what, exactly, it was that made one production far exceed that of the other.  My guess isn't that it was one or the other of the actors who did poorly in the roles, but most likely the amalgamation of the two playing off one another in the roles, and working far better in the initial viewing we had, that lent itself so well to the production my wife and I deemed superior. 

It was my wife, noting how well suited Cumberbatch was to the role of Frankenstein, that cut to the heart of why that rendition seemed to work so well.  After that, I started thinking about Cumberbatch as an actor -- of whom, as I state above, I am a huge fan.  Has he been typecast?  Or is he just attracted to a specific type of role -- the hyper-intelligent, overly arrogant, emotionally distanced (verging from indifference almost to neglect) character?  Let's roll the tape. 

We had also recently watched PATRICK MELROSE, the Showtime series based on the novels of Edward St. Aubyn.  Lightly based on St. Aubyn's life, it follows the deterioration of Melrose into the abyss of drugs, as he deals, or mostly avoids, the abuse of his childhood, while trying to find his way in the world.  Coming from a noteworthy British family, Melrose is a supremely intelligent man who finds it challenging to get out of his own way, as the traumas of his youth continue to haunt him, even as he goes from one relationship and one drug cocktail to the next, with no regard for how he treats people or what he's doing to himself.  Self-destructive, even while holding onto the knowledge of what he's doing, to himself and to his young family, as we progress through the narrative, Melrose does eventually come through it, but not without a wealth of assistance from those around him, those he has pushed away.  This was a tour-de-force of acting on the part of Cumberbatch and a riveting mini-series that kept one engaged and sympathetic of Melrose, even as his actions continually undermined any good he might try to do.  Truly, an amazing bit of acting in a story that, though familiar to some extent, was a stellar dramatic presentation.  Now, I need to seek out the books and read them. 

Then there's DR. STRANGE:  Similarly arrogant, a physician who has people's lives in his hands, The God in his own mind, and, once again, emotionally distant because people are not on his level of intellect and importance, not unlike Patrick Melrose, not unlike Victor Frankenstein. Strange loses it all, must work to regain his life and fight to become a better person, not unlike Patrick Melrose (Frankenstein does not come through the haze of arrogance and superiority that plagues him). 

There are, of course, the tragedies of Julian Assange (from a certain point of view) and Alan Turing (from everyone's point of view, I would hope) as portrayed by Cumberbatch in THE FIFTH ESTATE and THE IMITATION GAME, respectively.  Again, Cumberbatch dives into characters whose intellect sets them apart from "regular" people.  He is emotionally distant, finds it challenging to make friends, either through a heightened caution mixed with disdain, or a lack of common interests.  It's interesting that Cumberbatch seems attracted to these roles, and even more interesting that I'd not seen the connection before.  But it's there, definitely. 

Which brings us to the role that put Benedict Cumberbatch into the greater cultural consciousness, which could be seen as the ur-text for the characters he would take on, SHERLOCK.  His definition of this well-known fictional detective has become the definitive characterization of Sherlock Holmes, for many, despite its shift in setting to present-day London.  The quick thinking, sharp speaking, highly observant, extremely emotionally distant Sherlock is engaging and sympathetic, even while being a thoughtless ass on many occasions, due in no small part to Sherlock's own perceived elevation above the rest of society.  This was the performance that put Cumberbatch on the map, and it seems to have been the template with which he's chosen to craft a body of work as an actor. 

All of these roles have afforded Cumberbatch the opportunity to expand his ability as an actor while telling stories that, one would hope and assume, mean a lot to him.  It would be nice to see him reach beyond the type that seems to pervade his work, and I have little doubt he could be successful in that, but there's also the question of whether his audience will be able to accept him in roles other than the similar ones he has so far engaged with. 

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