Released 2013. Directed by Bill Condon. Screenplay by Josh Singer, based on “Inside Wikileaks: My Time with Julian Assange at the World’s Most Dangerous Website” by Daniel Domscheit-Berg and “Wikileaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy” by David Leigh and Like Harding. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Daniel Brühl.
Sadly I couldn’t help myself from leaking a plot spoiler or two.
I love impersonations. A good one is witty and charming; a great one can be transformative. Benedict Cumberbatch’s depiction of Julian Assange, the controversial founder of whistleblowing epicentre Wikileaks, is utterly remarkable, and undoubtedly the biggest virtue of The Fifth Estate. Thanks to his white hair, he bears a certain physical resemblance to the Australian troublemaker (although he remains unmistakeably Cumberbatch), he crucially nails the lilt peculiar to Assange’s voice, and has a decent go of translating a trait particular to those who are elusive, shadowy and unknowable: elusive, shadowy unknowability. His Assange is always slightly unpredictable, his actions not characterised by deceit but never far away from it. It’s probably the only sensible way to access the character, and therefore might be an obvious choice, but Cumberbatch’s portrayal is of such quality that one is forced to look elsewhere for the reason his performance has (perhaps aptly) slipped under the radar of cultural impact and awards consideration. That reason is director Bill Condon, who is doing an impersonation of his own.
Released 2014. Directed by Steve McQueen. Screenplay by John Ridley, based on “Twelve Years a Slave” by Solomon Northup. Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o, Benedict Cumberbatch.
I’ve been trying to write about 12 Years a Slave in an impersonal, methodical way, but I can’t. So strong was my response to this film that I need to bring my background and experience to the surface of my review, so here it is: as a 25-year-old white male who’s never had much to be bullied about, let alone abused, as much as I try to empathise with slaves depicted in media, it’s not a life I know anything about, even tangentially. It’s all too easy for me to observe portrayals of slavery and nod along, intellectually appreciating the cruelty and brutality shown without getting anywhere near an understanding of the hopelessness, the suffering, the human cost. Whenever I see slavery in media, I know what the appropriate response is, and I don’t have any trouble understanding what I’m being told, and it’s not as though I disagree that slavery is evil, but I’ve never truly felt it. The slaves I see live in another world, and are born into their situations. I don’t have any trouble sympathising, but I do have trouble empathising. The slaves I see are not like me.