Everyone’s favourite old Harrovian and CEO of the CumberCollective, Benedict Timothy Carlton Cumberbatch is back on our screens this week in The Imitation Game. In it, he excels as codebreaker-turned-pariah-turned-national-hero Alan Turing. What better time, then, to do what we’ve already done with his old pal Tom Hiddleston and take a thorough rummage through the back catalogue of the man you voted the Sexiest in movies? Here, then, are the great, the good and the (very occasionally) stinky entries on his CV so far...
ESSENTIAL VIEWING: SHERLOCK (2011-)
Usually, we confine these lists to film work. But in Cumberbatch’s case, there is simply no way to ignore his television triumphs, and one consulting detective stands head-and-shoulders above the rest. With his brutal brilliance and almost total lack of anything resembling manners, Sherlock is an unlikely object of devotion, but that’s what he seems to inspire not only among his onscreen followers in the show but in the world at large. Cumberbatch, sporting a Byronic crop of dark curls and perhaps the greatest coat the world has ever seen, muses and deduces seraphically while Martin Freeman’s Dr. Watson throws his genius into relief with a more grounded, civil counterpoint. No wonder Cumberbatch has since feared being typecast as a genius (see also: Star Trek Into Darkness, The Imitation Game), because he builds on his early smartypants work in Starter For Ten here to establish himself as the go-to guy for the stupidity-challenged. The results sparked a fanbase that seems to grow by the day, and managed to eclipse even Robert Downey Jr.’s take on Arthur Conan Doyle’s most enduring character.
ESSENTIAL VIEWING: PARADE'S END (2013)
Imagine the Earl of Grantham, only with a million Germans trying to kill him and a wife cheating on him, and you have Ford Madox Ford’s great Edwardian hero Christopher Tietjens. He’s brought to fittingly thoughtful on-screen life by Cumberbatch in a hugely elegant BBC/HBO adaptation. Plenty of credit is also due to Rebecca Hall as Tietjens’ louchely cruel wife Sylvia, and writer Tom Stoppard, whose script engages both heart and brain. But it’s the Cumberbatch show from beginning to end as this clever, kind, occasionally mulish but ultimately upstanding member of an ancient class torn apart by war. Billed by its director as “Downton meets The Wire” – if you haven’t seen it, the sherry-ups will blow your mind – it’s sophisticated telly with plenty to say and a fantastic actor to say it. Audiences mostly missed its BBC run but you can catch it on Netflix.
ESSENTIAL VIEWING: 12 YEARS A SLAVE (2013)
Lupita Nyong’o won the Oscar and Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender both also donned their finery for Academy Awards night, but Benedict Cumberbatch deserves an honorary mention too for bringing nuance to the less showy but equally pivotal real-life role of slave owner William Ford. Is he a decent man corroded by the system of which he’s a part or a pious fool deluded into thinking he’s on the side of the angels? The actor has us thinking first one thing and then the other. In his kindly-creepy hands, the simple gift of a violin by the slave owner to Solomon Northup feels about as welcome as a sheep poo in a Maltesers jar – why not just be done with it and handcuff him to a radiator? – whatever the intention behind the gesture. The real Ford’s ancestors were reportedly unhappy with the depiction; everyone else just bowed to the Cumbercraft on display.
RECOMMENDED: TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY (2011)
With a dandyish air masking a needle-sharp intellect, the role of MI6 enforcer Peter Guillam fit Cumberbatch like one of those Savile Row suits in Tomas Alfredson’s mole-hunt thriller. He’s the centre-point of the film’s best set piece, a blood-pressure-cranking rummage through the Circus archives for a crucial clue, but is equally good patrolling the perimeter of scenes with languorous menace as head of the Scalphunters. To prep for the role Cumberbatch visited the seaside Moroccan town of Essaouira where his character’s back story plays out in John le Carré’s tale. “I was wandering around the streets at night,” he recalled, “thinking what it must be like to know that every turn could be my last.” Still sounds like a holiday to us.
RECOMMENDED: THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG (2013)
Sibilantly huffy fire drake Smaug just pips another hissable Cumberbatch role, Star Trek Into Darkness’s John ‘It’s My Real Name, Honest’ Harrison, in this section, mostly by dint of some first-rate motion-capture work and vocal chords that couldn’t be more perfect for the role if they occasionally burped flames. Of course, we’re only halfway through the fireworks – Lake-town’s goose is yet to be cooked, for one thing – but the battle of wits with Bilbo (Martin Freeman) stands alongside Bilbo and Gollum's riddle-a-thon as the yarn’s most gripping sequence to date. As his tape reveals, even the most bizarre framing in audition history couldn’t prevent Cumberbatch’s rare mixture of honey and thunder from snapping Peter Jackson’s casting bods to attention.
FOR THE FAN: WRECKERS (2011)
Before Sherlock became huge and Smaug upped his frequent flyer’s mileage into the stratosphere, Benedict Cumberbatch was just a humble schoolteacher in an intimate drama that awaits Cumbpletists on good streaming sites. Dictynna Hood’s tightly wound story is a three-hander with a man (Cumberbatch), his wife (Claire Foy) and his brother (Shaun Evans) slowly unravelling in a Kentish village. The latter is a returning Afghan War veteran with plenty of family skeletons in his kit bag and a bad case of PTSD. If that all sounds semi-familiar to Sherlock fans, be prepared for crimes of a purely metaphorical nature. Instead, there’s rural friction aplenty, marital strife and lots of the kind of edgy craft that could yet win Cumberbatch an Oscar.
ONE TO AVOID: THE FIFTH ESTATE (2013)
If you queued up to hear the Cummer get Wiki, you were probably on your own. A good and decent man by every account, Benedict Cumberbatch stood loyally by his IckyLeaks flop while the world inched away from it like a stink bomb in the cinema foyer. In fairness, it’s the narrative rather than any flaws in B-Cumbs’ performance that makes it such an enervating experience. Joining the dots on Julian ‘Wikileaks’ Assange’s life is Bill ‘Dreamgirls’ Condon, an uneasy marriage of director and material that plods methodically from A to B to C in a way that holds little enlightenment. Assange refused to meet Cumberbatch before filming and later published a letter condemning the movie. Strangely, it made no mention of the fact that in an otherworldly garb of white wig, contact lenses and anorak, his on-screen counterpart made him look like an extra-terrestrial rambler.