Tag: Benedict Cumberbatch

Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy (2011)

Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy (2011)

We’re going on a Mole Hunt: Le Carré’s finest book is boiled down into an atmospheric and masterful spy thriller

Director: Tomas Alfredson

Cast: Gary Oldman (George Smiley), Colin Firth (Bill Haydon), Tom Hardy (Ricki Tarr), Mark Strong (Jim Prideaux), Ciaran Hinds (Roy Bland), Benedict Cumberbatch (Peter Guillam), David Dencik (Toby Esterhase), Toby Jones (Percy Alleline), John Hurt (Control), Kathy Burke (Connie Sachs), Roger Lloyd-Pack (Mendel), Svetlana Khodchenkove (Irina), Konstantin Khabensky (Polyakov)

Anyone taking on this, Le Carré’s finest novel faced a tough challenge. After all, arguably the definitive version already exists: the masterful, slow-burn, 1979 TV adaptation (one of my favourite films ever) starring an Alec Guinness so perfect as the rotund, inscrutable spy-master George Smiley that Le Carré stated he could no longer write the character without thinking of him. I’ve long been nuts for Tinker, Tailor: I rushed to the cinema to see this with an equally keen-friend about five days before my wedding (on my wife-to-be’s birthday!) because I was looking forward to it so much. (Despite this the wedding went ahead). It can’t match that Guinness version – but it runs it close.

It’s the height of the Cold War, and the respected head of the British Intelligence Services (‘the Circus’) Control (John Hurt) is forced out, along with his deputy George Smiley (Gary Oldman) after a rogue mission in Hungary goes disastrously wrong. Over a year later, Smiley is secretly recalled to lead a mole hunt. Someone at the top of the service is a Russian agent – but who? New head Percy Alleline (Toby Jones)? Or one of the deputies – Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds) or Toby Esterhase (David Dencik)?

The first inspiration here is the screenplay. When I heard the film was two hours long I was stunned: the TV series unfolded over nearly seven hours! But the script, by Peter Straughan and the late Bridget O’Connor (who tragically died of cancer during it’s making) is a masterpiece. It brilliantly and skilfully compresses and restructures the novel, boiling down scenes to their core. But yet, it never feels rushed. The script creates composite scenes – most brilliantly a flashback to a Circus Christmas party – which allows a vast range of sub-plots and characters to simultaneously unfold.

Alongside this, the film is superbly, atmospherically directed by Tomas Alfredson. Alfredson brings a sharp, outsider’s view to this public-school nightmare turned espionage hub. These are posh boys, running an exclusive club, which plays by punishing rules. Everyone constantly spies one everyone else and there is no moment of privacy. Alfredsen brilliantly explores the social and emotional impact of spying, trapped within a grim and oppressive 70s mileu of dirt, beige, fear and loneliness.

The film is brilliantly designed, capturing a vast array of 70s designs and shades. The Circus is an industrial office – with its centre piece an orange lined, sound-proof room. Streets are lined with political graffiti – at one point we see “The Future is Female” a nifty comment on the all-male institution we are watching. Communist Hungary is a post-industrial slum, hotel rooms crowded with papers, cigarette smoke and overflowing ash trays.

At the centre is Gary Oldman, simply brilliant as Smiley. Controlled, measured and deploying only as much energy is needed, Smiley adds a hint of Guinness to his voice and always seems in control. But this lugubrious Smiley bubbles with tension, driven by twin demons. The first is Karla, the Russian spy-master Smiley let slip through his fingers years ago, the subject of a maudlin late-night recollection to his assistant Guillam. Even more important is his wife Ann, the betrayer Smiley still loves to distraction, a half-sight of her enough to make him stumble and lose breath. We never see either of these clearly in the film, reflecting their status as the only characters Smiley never understands and can’t make cool, calm, passion-free decisions about.

Cold-eyed reason guides everything else he does. Oldman’s Smiley may be grandfatherly, softly-spoken and controlled, but he’s as ruthless (if not more so) than everyone else. Smiley is precise and patient. There is a beautiful character establishing moment: Smiley, Mendel and Guillam are in a car bothered by a wasp. Guillam and Mendel flap with futile energy: Smiley waits and then lowers the window slightly at the perfect moment to let the wasp fly out. It captures in microcosm Smiley’s investigation. But he’s not afraid to use force: quietly threatening Dencik’s trembling Esterhase with deportation (not even flinching as a plane lands behind him), ruthlessly mining witnesses for evidence and verbally lashing out bitterly at the mole.

Alfredson’s film zeroes in on much of the emotional impact on spying. Smiley is a man slightly lost in the world outside of spying: retired, he seems adrift walking the streets, swims alone, sits at home in his suit. He’s so deactivated he doesn’t even speak for the first 18 minutes of the film, when he is recalled to life. Smiley has suppressed his emotions so completely only the shadow of his wife can move him. His home is a strange shrine, so much so he even keeps the gifts her lover gives her.

Each of the characters suffers under their burdens, and the demands on them for secrecy and isolation. Mark Strong’s Jim Prideaux buries himself in guilt in a caravan and forms a friendship with a young boy he later realises he is crafting into the same secretive man he is. Guillam is quietly ordered by Smiley to end his relationship with his boyfriend and acquiesces in private tears. Connie Sachs lives in retirement like a mad woman in an attic, cradling her memories. Control dies alone in a hospital bed. Later the Mole clings to having “made his mark” to supress his guilt, while a man whose career is ruined walks into oblivion blank faced not even noticing the rain around him.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is full of moments like this, the high-price of dogged, dedicated work like spying. Alfredson’s coolly, beautifully shot film (by Hoyte van Hoytema) with its lyrical score by Alfredo Iglesias is a masterpiece of tone. This is a dark, dangerous world and we are constantly reminded of it, in between the muttered meetings in board rooms and dark corriders. Tom Hardy’s (wonderful) Ricki Tarr and Mark Strong’s deeply emotional Prideaux are spies-on-the-ground, face-to-face with dangers. Theirs is a world of brutal throat-cuts, eviscerations in a bath and sudden executions. The decisions played out in rooms like that orange-lined sound-proof office with its methodical, intricate ship’s clock, lead to death and violence.

The film is stuffed with beautifully composed shots and brilliantly edited (Dino Jonsäter’s cuts frequently carry us over brilliantly over transitions and segues that streamline the narrative perfectly). Despite cutting back and forth over multiple timelines, it’s always clear when we are (an ingenious device sees Smiley change his glasses in retirement, instantly grounding us in the timeline based on the pair he is wearing). The Christmas party scene – exactly the sort of bizarre public-school irreverent piss-up (where spies who fight night and day to destroy the USSR raucously sing communist songs with a Lenin-dressed Santa) is a superb distillation of character and plot beats and becomes, in many ways the emotional pivot of the movie. It’s a very inventive addition.

The film assembles a superb cast. Oldman, of course, leads from the front but there is not a weak turn in the cast. Hardy is gritty, bitter and jumped-up, Cumberbatch holding his tension down under professionalism, Strong drips quiet grief, Firth swaggers with superb, assured insouciance, Hurt is the book’s arch-spy-master come to life, Jones is full of preening pride, Burke lost in memories. If I’d like the film to be longer for any reason, it would be to see more of these actors.

Full of moody, seventies beauty and creeping paranoia, it’s also crammed with beautifully judged lines and incidental moments from the book. Alfredson’s atmospheric film has a profound emotional understanding of the cost of this life of isolation and paranoia. It took a couple of viewings, but this emerges from the shadow of my favourite TV series.

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022)

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022)

Marvel opens up its infinite universes as it lays the groundwork for bringing back old characters with new faces in this corporate outing

Director: Sam Raimi

Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch (Dr Stephen Strange), Elizabeth Olsen (Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch), Rachel McAdams (Dr Christine Palmer), Chiwetel Ejiofor (Karl Mordo), Benedict Wong (Wong), Xochitl Gomez (America Chavez), Michael Stuhlbarg (Dr Nicodemus West)

Spoilers: The main spoiler would be looking at the cast list. I won’t name the cameos are but I do mention a main plot development revealed within 15 minutes.

Parallel universes have infinite possibilities. These are largely not found in this lumpen, fan-service obsessed and (whisper it) slightly dull film that fails to follow-up on either the promise of the first film (to which it makes awkward call-backs) or its main concept. It allows Raimi scope to indulge his Evil Dead style visuals, but all within the confines of producing another entry in the series that feels like a bridge between chapters rather than an interesting story in its own right.

Dr Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) attends the wedding of former girlfriend Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), when he’s torn away to fight a squid monster chasing a teenager, America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez). America has the power to travel between parallel universes – and is dragging behind her the dead body of a parallel Strange who failed to protect her from a mysterious foe trying to steal her power. Strange, Wong (Benedict Wong – the most engaging performance in the film from this under-rated actor) and the Sorcerers protect America – but Strange’s attempt to recruit Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) goes awry when it turns out its she hunting America, using dark magic in an attempt to find her parallel versions of her lost children.

DSITMOM has been called the MCU’s horror film: which by no means makes it The Exorcist. It’s a sort of very, very gentle entrée to the genre – like Cronenberg’s Videodrome was turned into a kid’s TV series or a comic-book version of Raimi’s The Evil Dead. It has a few flourishes, but none of this is allowed to get in the way of the corporate enterprise. It’s more interested in giving people what it feels they want and fitting itself into the timeline of a series.

In fact it sometimes feels like an attempt to mirror the success of Spider-Man: No Way Home (I wonder how many of the cameos were added after that film’s release?). It takes the elements of guest stars and parallel universes and presents them in ways that provide little insight or long-term reward. In No Way Home alternate versions of characters are used to explore how different events could have shaped our heroes. The returning stars aren’t just thrown in, they have arcs and emotional journeys. The whole is both fun and an engaging story but also nostalgic. Compare, as well, the TV series Loki (by the same writer) that brilliantly used parallel versions of its lead to deconstruct and develop his character.

DSITMOM does none of this. There are rich opportunities to see how Strange may have developed in different universes: after all this is the closest thing to an “ends justify the means” character in the MCU. Would different versions of him go more or less further – and how might it make our Strange reflect on his occasionally ruthless ‘big picture’ thinking (this is after all, as the film mentions, the guy who allowed half of all life to blink out of existence as part of a masterplan only he knew). We don’t get nearly enough of that. In fact, we get virtually none of it.

These opportunities are ignored in the two parallel universes we spend the most time in, where Strange is either a dead war hero or an insane hermit corrupted by dark magic. Neither of these characters is really contrasted effectively or interestingly with our version. A faint plotline of Strange learning trust from the mistakes of others is threaded through, but only lightly. Instead, the film focuses more attention on Strange’s lost love for Christine Palmer, an oddly unsatisfying focus since Strange has appeared in at least four films since his first solo effort six years ago, and the franchise has failed to mention this motivating loss once (not even a throwaway line in No Way Home to build it up).

Mind you it’s better than the development Wanda Maximoff gets. DSITMOM is pretty much impenetrable unless you’ve watched WandaVision. Even if you have, as I have, you’ll probably be a little annoyed at the ‘development’ she gets here. At the end of that series, Wanda had accepted the damaging consequences of her grief and started moving on. Here though, she’s a sociopathic monster defined solely by her motherly grief and her ruthless determination to tear universes apart to heal it. It feels retrograde to, essentially, be saying “women who suffer loss go axe-crazy” or to double down on her willingness to harm others to cling to a ‘normal life’ fantasy (as well as contrary to the hopeful tone the series ended on).

That’s not to mention the clumsy fan service peppering the film. The main outing to a parallel universe is basically an excuse for fan-pleasing cameos. These amount to nothing more than a series of actors popping up say “Hello I’m Y” and promptly suffering terrible fates (because it’s a parallel universe and your plot armour means nothing there). Like Yoda fighting Christopher Lee, it’s cool when you first see it but risks becoming less and less rewarding overtime because it’s utterly insubstantial.

DSITMOM is basically insubstantial. It drags on – it’s a chase film that largely lacks momentum – it has a series of slightly bored looking actors (Ejiofor wins, with a Mordo who seems to have become Strange’s nemesis in the interim between this and the first film despite never being mentioned in any other film since), gets absorbed in a MacGuffin filled plot (there are no less than two Magic Books of Wham-a-bam that are being hunted or fought over) and flattens down most of Raimi’s style into a corporate product with little heart (compare this to his Spider-Man films which look like Citizen Kane or Vertigo next to this).

There are about two moments of invention: a sequence when Strange plummets through a series of bizarre parallel universes (including one where he’s made of paint) and a battle between two Stranges that utilises musical notes as weapons. Everything else feels production flattened, as do the actors, and ends teeing you up for a third film with another “whoop” cameo. Flat, lumpen and failing to capitalise on its possibilities, this is a big disappointment, an empty lightshow with brief but shallow pleasures.

The Courier (2021)

The Courier (2021)

True-life Cold War thrills, as two spies battle to prevent the Cuban Missile crisis

Director: Dominic Cooke

Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch (Greville Wynne), Merab Ninidze (Oleg Penkovsky), Rachel Brosnahan (Helen Talbot), Jessie Buckley (Shelia Wynne), Angus Wright (Dickie Franks), Željko Ivanek (John McClone), Kirill Pirogov (Oleg Gribanov), Anton Lesser (Bertrand), Maria Mironova (Vera)

In October 1962 the world nearly ended, as the USA and the USSR clashed over Soviet missiles in Cuba. The history of this grim month is well known, as the fate of the world hung in the balance. What’s less known is the role Soviet double agent Oleg Penkovsky played in passing information on Soviet capabilities and strategy to the West – and how crucial this was to bringing the crisis to a (world-surviving) end.

The Courier covers – in a pleasingly old-fashioned, Le Carré-ish way – Penkovsky’s (Merab Ninidze) dangerous espionage career, and the relationship he built with British businessman Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch). Wynne – totally unconnected to the Secret Services – was chosen by MI6 to make initial contact with Penkovsky. He then served as Penkovsky’s courier, carrying secret documents and microfilm back to the West under cover of business trips to the Soviet Union – and the two men became close friends. When the Cuban Missile Crisis increases the risks to Penkovsky, it’s Wynne who pushes for a risky mission to extract him before he is uncovered and killed.

Directed with confident, low-key aplomb by Dominic Cooke, The Courier mixes shady, spy-thriller tropes (secret meetings, scratched signals, one-time pads, secret cameras) with a genuine friendship between two very different people. All taking place in a grim, Soviet environment where the risk of discovery lurks around every corner. Ordinary receptionists and chauffeurs could all be active or potential informants of the KGB, and there is not a single room that cannot be bugged.

It’s a very unusual world fish-out-of-water Wynne finds himself in. Expertly played by Cumberbatch as a stiff-necked people-pleasing fixer (introduced deliberately losing a game of golf to close a business deal with the triumphant winners), Wynne uncovers depths he didn’t suspect in himself. He at first has no interest in spying – or the Soviet Union – and simply wants a quiet life rebuilding trust with his wife (Jessie Buckley making a great deal of a rather thankless part of a woman kept in the dark about her husband’s activities) after a past affair.

He needs brow-beating from MI6 to even carry out his first mission – which he executes with a nervy unease – and reacts with horror at the idea of repeating it. What draws him in is the same quality that will see him take huge risks: his sense of humanity and fair play and the bond of mutual friendship and understanding between him and Penkovsky. Wynne willingly accepts dangers and sacrifices others would blanche at, out of loyalty and a sharply defined sense of right and wrong.

Wonderfully played by Ninidze, The Courier makes clear the huge risks Penkovsky is taking even considering talking to the West. This is a country where a Western spy is executed in the middle of a special staff meeting at his ministry. Whose leader is hell-bent on asserting Russian dominance and devil-take the consequences (sound familiar?). A country taking part in an arms race that could destroy the world, and disregarding the risks that could lead to those weapons being used. A quiet, loving family man, Penkovsky is appalled at the aggressive posturing of his country and how it is endangering his family and millions like them around the world.

It’s the bond between these two men, their sense of duty and their desire to protect, their quiet wit and small acts of thoughtfulness – as well as their capacity for betrayal (Penkovsky of his country, Wynne of his wife) – that draws them together. For Wynne, the selfless risks of Penkovksy create a deep well of respect and admiration, as well as pushing this businessman to develop into a justified-risk-taking moralist with a greater emotional connection to the beauty of life (represented by two contrasting scenes showing the two of them attending a Russian ballet – the second performance moves them both to tears, as if reminding them why they fight).

Around them, shot in a beautifully drained out style that really adds to the sense of terror and danger, plays out a sharp, well-paced spy thriller. Rachel Brosnahan plays Penkovsky’s CIA handler – an invented female agent, allowing the film to take a few shots at the stuffed-shirt unimaginativeness of her superiors – while Angus Wright (all stiff realpolitik) is his MI6 one. The official agencies play a more pragmatic bat, pushing Penkovsky to greater-and-greater calculated risks to improve their access. They also coldly accept any double agent has only a limited shelf-life before discovery, and getting the maximum out of them while they can is essential.

The film’s final act explores the impact of this, as Penkovsky is exposed and Wynne goes to dangerous lengths to try and help him escape. Shifting at this point into something more claustrophobic and hand-held, the film’s final act layers on the grim suffering spies face when uncovered – and includes several moments of genuinely moving suffering.

The Courier is a low-key, efficient, well-made and well-paced true-life espionage story, that feels like the professional, smartly assembled, film-making that often gets squeezed out of cinemas today. Very well acted by a strong cast, every frame has a perfect mixture of 50s/60s style and Cold War paranoia and its final sequence carries a decent emotional punch. A fine retelling of an overlooked story.

Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021)

Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021)

Tom Holland’s Spider-Man encounters friends and enemies from another franchise or two

Director: Jon Watts

Cast: Tom Holland (Peter Parker/Spider-Man), Zendaya (MJ), Benedict Cumberbatch (Dr Stephen Strange), Jacob Batalon (Ned Leeds), Marisa Tomei (May Parker), Jon Favreau (“Happy” Hogan), Jamie Foxx (Max Dillon/Electro), Willem Dafoe (Norman Osborn/Green Goblin), Alfred Molina (Otto Octavius/Doctor Octopus), Benedict Wong (Wong), Tony Revolori (“Flash” Thompson), Andrew Garfield (Peter Parker/Spider-Man), Tobey Maguire (Peter Parker/Spider-Man), Rhys Ifans (Dr Curt Connors/Lizard), Thomas Haden Church (Flint Marko/Sandman), JK Simmons (J Jonah Jameson)

It’s been out long enough now – and Marvel are even advertising the Guest Stars – so I guess we can worry slightly less about spoiling this massive crossover event. Spider-Man: No Way Home became one of the biggest hits of all time. It’s not hard to see why, in our nostalgia-loving times. But its not just about nostalgia – lovely as it is to see all those old characters once again. It’s also a hugely entertaining, rather sweet film, crammed with slick lines and jokes, while also, like the best of Marvel’s films, having a heart. We’ve got a hero here so humanitarian he goes to huge risks to try and save the villains. That’s refreshingly human.

Picking up after the conclusion of Spider-Man: Far From Home, Peter Parker’s (Tom Holland) secret-identity is known. Parker finds himself at the centre of a massive, world-wide scandal, which ends the college chances of him and his friends MJ (Zendaya) and Ned (Jacob Batalon). Peter asks Dr Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) for help: namely can the world forget who he is? When the spell goes wrong, people who know Parker’s identity from other realities start appearing. And these guys aren’t happy, with villains like Dr Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina), Electro (Jamie Foxx) and psychopath Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe) arriving. But, when Peter discovers sending them back will condemn them to die in the battle against their Spider-man, he decides to do everything he can to try and save them.

No Way Home’s success partly lies on the nostalgia factor, especially for those of us who loved the early Maguire films. And you can sign me up to that: I can’t believe it’s been 20 years since the first one came out! No Way Home throws in characters from all five pre-Holland films and zeros in on the best of the bunch. The films has a lot of fun shuffling and realigning these characters in interesting new combinations, often allowing them to moan about things like origin stories (there is a very funny exchange between Electro and Sandman on the danger of falling into experiments) or just to get on each other’s nerves (Molina’s Doc Ock is spectacularly grumpy).

You pretty much have to have a heart of stone not to enjoy seeing most of these characters again – particularly as they are played with such lip-smacking aplomb. Above all, Dafoe relishes the chance to cement his place as one of the great villains, switching perfectly between gentle and psychotic as the schizophrenic Norman Osborn/Green Goblin (and becoming the nemesis of no-less than two Spider-men). Molina is equally good: pomposity and rage turning into avuncular decency. These two landmark villains from the two best films take most of the limelight, with a smaller share for Jamie Foxx (far more comfortable here than he was in Amazing Spider-Man 2). But every villain is given moments of tragic depth and seeing them react to news of their deaths is strangely moving.

It sets the table rather nicely for a film about redemption. Peter believes he can save these villains from death if he can cure them and restore their humanity. While the pragmatic Strange sees this as pointless, Peter can’t turn his back on a chance to save people. On top of this, No Way Home also serves as a meta-redemption arc for the two previous franchises: Maguire gets a third film worthy of the first two and Garfield is given the sort of rich material he was denied in his failed series.

Which brings us nicely to the biggest returns. Denied by both actors for the best part of a year, this film throws not one, not two but three Spider-men at us, with Maguire and Garfield reprising their incarnations. All three delight in sparking off each other, riffing on everything from web-slingers to making normal life work (“Peter time”) alongside Spider-manning. Maguire settles nicely into the Big-Brother role, giving a worldly experience to the others without losing his gentle idealism. Garfield is sensational – lighter, funnier and warmer than he was in his own films, with a hidden grief that plays out with genuine impact.

Who couldn’t get excited about seeing these three together – or to see the film make these scenes work as well as it does? It shuffles and reassembles things we are familiar with, but presents them in new and intriguing combinations and above all feels true to the characterisations established in previous films. Maguire, Molina and Dafoe in particular feel like they’ve not been away since their own films, while Garfield and Foxx deepen and improve their characters. But it became a mega-hit because it has a truly strong story behind it.

A story staffed by strong, relatable characters. There is a genuine sense of alarm around how Peter and his friends in the film’s opening act are hounded and persecuted by a population scared of them. Even here redemption is key, with Peter going to dangerous lengths to try and get his friends a second chance at getting into MIT. These three characters have a sweet, warm friendship and the chemistry, in particular between Holland (who is sensational, endearing, funny but bringing the role great emotional depth) and Zendaya is stronger than it’s ever been.

And that’s before we hit the film’s genuinely endearing message. Holland’s still-optimistic hero (another excellent contrast with his more damaged alter-egos) is motivated by saving people. And that includes the villains. Maybe it’s the years of Covid, but there is something hugely lovable about a hero who wants to give people a second chance. It’s a living demonstration of “with great power comes great responsibility” (words this film introduces into the Marvel universe with powerful effect, in a mid-film climax). In fact the film is, in some ways, the origin-story Holland’s Spider-Man never had: it gives him a foundational tragedy, leaves him in an isolated position, strips him of his Iron Man style tech and leaves him in a set-up (alone in a cheap apartment, struggling to make ends meet and superheroing on the side) familiar from the comics.

Watts directs the film with real confidence and zest, especially outside the action set-pieces: there is frequent use of ingenious-but-not-flashy single takes and the film’s patient momentum for much of its first half, focusing on character and emotion, really pay off in the second half of fan-service and fights. The camera effects used for Peter’s web-slinging and his spider-sense have a delightful quirky invention. What he really does well though is zero in on the emotion and when events get tragic, he isn’t afraid to commit to that. It gives the film an emotional force that really connected with people.

That heart is what sustains it. It’s a joyful nostalgia trip – that redeems elements of the previous films – but this is a film that really cares about its characters – all of them – and wants you to as well. That gives difficult, emotional struggles to all its Spider-Men, that searches of the humanity in its villains, even the worst of them, making us sympathise with them even as they do dreadful things. Combined with the action and adventure – and the electric pace of the best of Marvel – No Way Home rightly stands as one of the best entries so far.

The Power of the Dog (2021)

Power of the Dog header
Benedict Cumberbatch rules his ranch with an iron fist in Jane Campion’s extraordinary The Power of the Dog

Director: Jane Campion

Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch (Phil Burbank), Kirsten Dunst (Rose Gordon), Jesse Plemons (George Burbank), Kodi Smit-McPhee (Peter Gordon), Thomasin McKenzie (Lola), Genevieve Lemon (Mrs Lewis), Keith Carradine (Governor Edward), Frances Conroy (Old Lady), Peter Carroll (Old Gent)

At one point in The Power of the Dog, Phil Burbank, monstrously domineering Montana Rancher, stares out at his beloved hills. Where others see only rocks and peaks, Phil sees how (like a cloud) they form themselves into looking like a howling dog. Seeing things others do not is something Phil prides himself on. It’s also something The Power of the Dog excels out: it’s a continually genre- and tone-shifting film that starts as a gothic, du Maurier-like dance among the plains and ends as something so radically different, with such unexpected character shifts and revelations, you’ll be desperate to go back and watch it again and see if you can see the image of a dog among its rocks.

In Montana in 1925, two brothers run a ranch. George (Jesse Plemons) is polite, formal and quiet, seemingly under the thumb of his aggressively macho, bullying brother Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch). Phil is fully “hands-on” on the ranch, priding himself on being able to perform every task, from rope weaving to bull skinning, all of which he learned from his deceased mentor “Bronco” Henry. Things change though when George marries Rose (Kirsten Dunst). Phil takes an immediate dislike to Rose, engaging into a campaign of psychological bullying that drives Rose to drink. However, at the same time a strange bond develops between Phil and Rose’s student son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) – is Phil’s interest in the boy part of a campaign to destroy Rose or are there other forces at work?

Campion’s film (her first in over ten years) is a fascinating series of narrative turns and genre shifts. It opens like a gothic Western. The ranch is a huge, isolated house surrounded by rolling fields and its own rules. Phil is an awe-inspiring, still-living Rebecca with Rose a Second Mrs de Winter having to share a bathroom with the perfect first wife. The psychological war Phil launches against Rose, like a hyper-masculine Mrs Danvers, seems at first to be heading towards a plot where we will see a vulnerable woman either crushed or fighting back. Then Campion shifts gears with incredible professional ease; the kaleidoscope shifts and suddenly our perceptions change along with the film’s genre, which becomes something strikingly different.

This all revolves around the character of Phil. Excellently played (way against type) by Benedict Cumberbatch, in a hugely complex performance, Phil at first seems an obvious character. A bully and alpha male who mocks George as “Fatso”, hurls homophobic slurs at Rose’s sensitive, artistic son and would-be doctor Pete, and treats his duties with such masculine reverence that the idea of wearing gloves to skin a cow or washing the dirt of his labour from him is anathema.

But look at Phil another way and you see his vulnerability. The opening scenes play as a torrent of abuse to George. But look again and you see this is a man desperately trying multiple angles to clumsily engage his brother in joint reminiscences. His emotional dependence on George is so great that they still share a single bedroom in their giant house (and even a bed in a guest house, like Morecambe and Wise) and he weeps on their first night apart. Despite his brutish appearance, his conversation is littered with classical and literary allusions (we discover later he is a Yale Classics graduate). His life is devoid of emotional and physical contact and he maintains a hidden retreat in the woods, a private den the only place we see him relax.

He’s a man clinging desperately to the past. At first it feels like he has never grown up, that he is still a boy at heart. But Campion slowly reveals his emotional bonds to his deceased mentor Bronco (whom he refers to almost constantly in conversation) to be far deeper and more complex than first anticipated. He treats Bronco’s remaining belongings with reverence, maintaining a shrine to him in the barn and cleaning his saddle with more tenderness and care than he feels able to show any human being. The depths of this relationship are crucial to understanding Phil’s character and the emotional barriers he has constructed. His gruff aggression hides a deep isolation and loneliness, feelings Campion explores with profound empathy in the film’s second half.

That doesn’t change the monstrousness of the bullying Phil enacts on Rose. Played with fragile timidity by Kirsten Dunst, Rose becomes so grimly aware of Phil’s loathing that is too paralysed by intimidation to even play Strauss on her newly purchased piano in front of George’s distinguished guests (Phil pointedly plays the music far better on his banjo and takes to whistling in in Rose’s presence) and later tips into alcoholic incoherence.

Despite Dunst’s strong performance, if the film has a flaw it is that we don’t quite invest in Rose enough to empathise fully with her emotional collapse. Both she and George (a fine performance of not-too-bright-decency from Plemons, in the least flashy role) disappear for stretches and play out parts of their relationship off camera, making it harder to bond with them (a bond the earlier part of the film needs). It perhaps might have been more effective to centre the film’s opening act on Rose rather than Phil, allowing us to relate to her better and feel her decline more.

Dunst however nails Rose’s growing fear, desperation and depression while her status as an unwelcome guest is constantly forced on her. Her panic only deepens with the return of her son Peter. This is where the film takes a series of unexpected shifts. To the surprise of all Phil offers to take the sensitive, quiet Pete under his wing: perhaps he’s impressed by Pete’s indifference to the homophobic abuse from the ranch-hands, perhaps he sees a chance to spiritually resurrect his mentor by playing the same role himself to Phil (pointedly, the film implies the younger Phil may not have been dissimilar from Pete). Either way, Campion’s film heads into its extraordinary and deeply impactful second half as an unsettling and uncertain personal drama between two men who seem totally different but may perhaps have more similarities than expected.

As Peter, Kodi Smit-McPhee gives a wonderfully judged performance of inscrutability and reserve. He’s an artistic boy who creates detailed paper flowers and keeps artistic scrapbooks, but can dissect animals without a flinch and snaps the neck of an injured rabbit with ease. He seems alternately devoted to his mother then queasily distant from her, calling her Rose and unsettled by her drunken inappropriateness. His motivations remain enigmatic, just as Phil’s motivations for befriending this isolated and very different boy could fall either way. Smit-McPhee and Cumberbatch are both extraordinarily good in the scenes between this unlikely partnership, and Campion’s artful film keeps us on our toes as to precisely what they want from this friendship. The result is haunting.

It leads into a stunning final act which demands we re-evaluate all we have seen and leaves such a lasting impression I was still re-living the film in my mind days later. Campion’s film is masterfully shot and carries a wonderful atmosphere of intimidation and unease, helped hugely by Johnny Greenwood’s brilliant score with its unsettling piano-inspired cadences. It reinvents itself constantly, Campion’s direction shifting tone and genre masterfully. It’s quite brilliantly acted and provides Cumberbatch in particular with an opportunity he seizes upon to slowly reveal depths of emotion and vulnerability an outwardly straight-forward monster. There won’t be many finer films released in 2021: and this will be a classic to sit alongside The Piano in Campion’s work.

Amazing Grace (2006)

Ioan Gruffudd in full flight in the conventional but charming Amazing Grace

Director: Michael Apted

Cast: Ioan Gruffudd (William Wilberforce), Romola Garai (Barbara Spooner), Benedict Cumberbatch (William Pitt the Younger), Ciaran Hinds (Banastre Tarleton), Albert Finney (John Newton), Michael Gambon (Charles James Fox), Rufus Sewell (Thomas Clarkson), Youssou N’Dour (Olaudah Equiano), Toby Jones (Duke of Clarence), Nicholas Farrell (Henry Thornton), Sylvestra Le Touzel (Marianne Thornton), Stephen Campbell Moore (James Stephen), Bill Paterson (Heny Dundas), Jeremy Swift (Richard)

From 1782 to 1807 William Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffudd) fought a long – sometimes lonely – campaign to end the slave trade (and eventually slavery – the film confuses the two, with slavery continuing in much of the Empire for over twenty more years) in the British Empire. During that time, he competed with vested interests, parliamentary rivals and accusations of being a radical at a time when Britain was at war with Revolutionary France.

Michael Apted’s old-fashioned film covers this, hitting every beat you would expect for a biographical drama. It uses a traditional framing device of starting in the middle of the story: Wilberforce in 1797, depressed, hooked on laudanum and out of hope, revitalised by meeting Barbara Spooner (Romola Garai) who will become his wife. This makes for a perfect narrative tool as it means she can ask him questions like “tell me what happened” which serves as a neat entrée into a whole host of flashbacks sketching out in the swiftest means possible the history of abolitionism.

Amazing Grace could have been made in the 1930s, so closely does it hue to the classic rules of biopics. It’s practically a structural brother to The Life of Emile Zola, a hagiographical portrait of an (admittedly outstanding) man which shows the expected arc of moral awakening, early success, tricky mid-point, the sad years, getting the band back together for one final big push ending in friends and foes alike coming together to hail his accomplishments. It’s all threaded together with a script that carefully moves through every event, simplifies history down and sometimes wears its research rather heavily.

You can’t argue that it isn’t well-meaning and heartfelt, but its simplicity (and the careful traditionalism of its shooting) makes it look more like a well-made TV special than an actual movie. But if you are a sucker for such things, as I am, it has more than enough to engage you. It also makes a compelling case about the horrors of the slavery and allows a few moments of spotlight to fall on former slave turned abolitionist Olaudah Equiano (well played by Youssou N’Dour). It certainly has its heart in the right place, its passionate liberalism and sense of moral outrage very clear.

Gruffudd – his skill for playing reluctant moral authority and duty honed from playing Hornblower – is good as Wilberforce, his obvious investment in the subject matter clear. Garai doesn’t have much to do other than tee up flashbacks, but does it with charm. Many of the rest veer on the side of fruity: Hinds and Jones scowl effectively as slave-owning senior lords (for some reason they sit in the House of Commons; Jones is even playing a Duke for goodness sake!). Gambon twinkles as only he can as Charles James Fox. Finney hams up lustily as the blind John Newton. Best of all though are Sewell as an eccentric Thomas Clarkson and Benedict Cumberbatch in an early sign of star-quality as the morally divided, reserved but decent Pitt the Younger.

It all comes together into something that seems tailor-made for Sunday afternoons. Nothing wrong with that – and not every film needs to reinvent the wheel – and since it wears its heart so openly on its sleeve, you can’t help feeling warmth towards it. It’s a Spark notes look at history – and glosses over the fact that slavery itself continued for decades – but as hagiography it’s endearing and as a feel-good biopic it succeeds at what it sets out to do.

Atonement (2007)

James McAvoy and Keira Knightley are lovers divided in Atonement

Director: Joe Wright

Cast: James McAvoy (Robbie Turner), Keira Knightley (Cecilia Tallis), Saoirse Ronan (Briony Tallis, aged 13), Romola Garai (Briony Tallis, aged 18), Vanessa Redgrave (Older Briony Tallis), Brenda Blethyn (Grace Turner), Juno Temple (Lola Quincey), Benedict Cumberbatch (Paul Marshall), Patrick Kennedy (Leon Tallis), Harriet Walter (Emily Tallis), Peter Wight (Inspector), Daniel Mays (Tommy Nettle), Nonso Anozie (Frank Mace), Gina McKee (Sister Drummond), Michelle Duncan (Fiona)

The past is a foreign country. Sadly, it’s not always the case that they do things differently there. Instead, it can be a land of regrets and mistakes that we can never undo. Events that once seemed so certain, end up twisting our lives and shaping our destinies. A single mistake can mean a lifetime of never being able to atone. These are ideas thrillingly explored in Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement, one of the finest in his career. The same ideas carry across to this handsomely mounted adaptation, which looks gorgeous but often tries too hard to impress.

In 1935, the Tallis family owns a grand country house. Precocious Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan) is on the cusp of her teenage years, and believes she understands the world perfectly. A budding writer, her imagination, curiosity and romanticism overflow. But her youthful mis-interpretation of the romantic interactions between her sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) and the housekeeper’s son Robbie Turner (James McAvoy)ends in a tragically mistaken accusation that destroys Robbie’s life. Five years later, Robbie serves as a private during the British retreat from Dunkirk, Cecilia is a nurse in London and Briony is training to become the same – their lives still shaped by those misunderstandings on that fateful night.

Atonement is a film I’m not sure time has been kind to. Released in 2007 to waves of praise (including Oscar nominations and a BAFTA and Golden Globe for Best Film), it has the classic combination of literary adaptation, period beauty and big themes. But re-watching it (and it’s the third time for me), the film rewards less and less. Instead, my overwhelming feeling this time was it was a tricksy, show-off film that – despite some strong performances, in particular from McAvoy and Ronan – strained every second to demonstrate to the viewer that Joe Wright belonged with the big boys as a cinema director.

Constantly, the emotional impact of the film is undermined because nearly every scene has an overwhelming feeling of being ”Directed”. Wright pours buckets of cinematic tricksiness and flair into the film – so much so that it overwhelms the story and drowns out the emotion. With repeat viewings this overt flashiness becomes ever more wearing. Scenes very rarely escape having some directorial invention slathered on them. Direct-to-camera addresses where the background fades to back (giving the air of a confessional). Events unspooling (and at one tiresome moment played in reverse) to illustrate time reversing to allow us to see events from a different perspective. Other visual images seem cliched beyond belief: a divine flash of light behind McAvoy while he struggles against death in Dunkirk or, worst of all, Nurse Briony talking about never being able to shed the guilt from her childhood actions while vigorously washing her hands.

Perhaps most grinding of all is the (Oscar winning) score from Dario Marinelli which hammers home the questionably reality of some of the scenes we are watching (or at least the creative filter that Briony is placing over them) by building in excessive typewriter whirs and clicks into its structure. It hammers home one of the film’s key themes: that at least part of what we are watching is based solely (it is revealed) on the recollections of the much older Briony, now a respected novelist. That perhaps, some of the events are her creative interpretation, wishes or even flat-out invention. This is a neat device, but perhaps one that could have worked better with a framing device to place it into context. Instead the reveal feels tacked on at the end – for all that this is the same approach McEwan takes in the novel (with greater effect).

But then, for all the film faithfully follows the structure of the novel (in a respectful adaptation by Christopher Hampton), too often its warmth and feeling get lost in the showy staging. Although part of the tragedy is that Robbie and Cecilia’s relationship is destroyed before they even get a chance to explore it fully, the chemistry between the two of them isn’t quite there and the film doesn’t quite communicate the bond between them being as deep as it would need to be. So much of this in the book was communicated through interior monologue – and the film refuses to take a second away from its flashiness to compensate for this by allowing the relationship between the two to breathe.

Instead Joe Wright prioritises his directorial effects. For all that his over five-minute tracking shot through the beach of Dunkirk is hugely impressive and dynamic – and it really captures a sense of the madness, despair, fear and confusion of the evacuation – this isn’t a film about Dunkirk. It is a film about a relationship – and using the same flair to make us fully buy into, and invest in, this relationship would perhaps have served the film better. It’s striking that, in the long-term, the most impressive scenes are the quieter ones: Benedict Cumberbatch’s chilling house guest’s subtly ambiguous conversation with Briony’s young cousins, or Robbie and Cecilia meeting in a crowded café after years and struggling to find both the words and body language to communicate feelings they themselves barely understand. In the long term, scenes like this are worth a dozen tracking shots – and demonstrate Wright has real talent behind all the showing off.

But the film is striking, looks wonderful – as a mix of both The Go Between and a war film – and in James McAvoy’s performance has a striking lead. McAvoy’s career was transformed by his work here – boyish charm with a slight air of cockiness under his decency, turned by events into fragility, vulnerability, fear and an anger he can’t quite place into words. Knightley gives one of her best performances – although, as always, even at her best she hasn’t the skill and depth of a Kate Winslet. Or a Saoirse Ronan for that matter, who is outstanding as the young Briony – convinced that she is right and that she understands the world perfectly, but as confused and vulnerable as any child thrown into a world that in fact she doesn’t comprehend.

Atonement has its virtues. But too often these are buried underneath showing off, ambition and tricksiness. Sadly this reduces its effect and leaves it not as successful a film as it should be.

1917 (2019)

George MacKay is lost in the horrors of war in Sam Mendes’ one-shot 1917

Director: Sam Mendes

Cast: George MacKay (Lance Corporal Will Schofield), Dean-Charles Chapman (Lance Corporal Tom Blake), Benedict Cumberbatch (Colonel Mackenzie), Colin Firth (General Erinmore), Richard Madden (Captain Blake), Andrew Scott (Lt. Leslie), Mark Strong (Captain Smith), Claire Duburcq (Lauri), Daniel Mays (Sgt Saunders), Adrian Scarborough (Major Hepburn), Jamie Parker (Lt Richards), Michael Jibson (Lt Hutton), Richard McCabe (Colonel Collins)

No film can even begin to capture the unspeakable horror of war, and those of us who have never been in the middle of it can only imagine what it must have been like for those who have. Based on the experiences of his grandfather Alfred, Sam Mendes’ World War I story tries to immerse the viewers in the experience by staging a film designed to play out in real time, in two epic takes (actually a series of very long takes seamlessly spliced together). It’s a technical accomplishment, but also a film partly dominated by the precision of its construction rather than the emotion of its telling.

One day in April 1917, two young Lance-Corporals, brave and selfless Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and more war-weary Will Schofield (George MacKay) are tasked with a desperate mission by General Erinmore (Colin Firth). The next morning, a British regiment will walk into a trap set by German forces. Blake and Schofield must take a message through no-man’s land, cancelling the regiment’s planned attack, or 1,600 men will die – including Blake’s brother who is serving with the regiment. 

Mendes’ film is a triumph whenever it is in motion. The time-limited race to travel across miles of hostile land – through no-man’s land, booby-trapped abandoned trenches, hazardous open fields and ruined towns that have become battlegrounds – works a treat whenever our heroes are constantly moving forward. Drawing a strange inspiration from Lord of the Rings, with its quest structure and Schofield as a Samwise to Blake’s Bilbo, the film is compellingly completed with the over-the-shoulder, walking-alongside intimacy of the camera work that follows every step of this journey, that never pulls ahead or shows us something that the soldiers can’t see and keeps us nearly constantly (bar one stunning shot of a ruined town lit only by firelight and early dawn) at the level of the soldiers.

It’s an epic experience film, and Mendes’ camerawork and ingenuity in the shooting create the impression of a one-take film – some shots seem to travel at least a mile, through winding trenches, with our heroes. The effect is justified by the desire of the film to throw us into the experience of the soldiers and to create the impression that we are sharing a journey with them – and hammers home the time pressure these men are operating under as we experience everything first hand, including the only undisguised cut (and time jump) in the film. The horrors of the war are superbly shown – dead bodies, many bloated or deformed by exposure, litter the frame but tellingly bring little comment from the soldiers, demonstrating how accustomed they have become to such sights. Each frame seems covered with muddy surfaces, and sharp freezing chills. Technically it’s a marvel, and you have to admire Mendes’ ambition in even attempting such a thing. 

Perhaps, though, that is one problem with the film. You are so impressed with the showy intelligence and grace of the camera movements, the ingenuity needed to keep the camera rolling through takes lasting ten minutes or more and travelling miles at a time, that move in and around confined rooms and trenches, that you at time spend as much (if not more) time marvelling at the brilliance of the film making as you do feeling the emotion of the story. While the long takes add immeasurably to the many moments of peril, dread and terror that the characters go through (helped also by Thomas Newman’s eerily unsettling score), they also become as much about admiring the technical brilliance as they are investing in the story.

Of course, the story has been boiled down to something very simple and elemental – and it avoids many clichés you half-expect from the start. But the film itself gets slightly less interesting when the relentless march forward stops, when the characters slow down or take moments of reflection. A section in the middle of the film where the action pauses around a young French woman hiding in a bombed out French town doesn’t quite work, and has a slight air of spinning plates – you could have allowed a longer break in the single take effect to take us from one event to another. In fact you wonder if a film that had more of a time jump or had been constructed around 3-4 clear long takes with time jumps might have worked better.

This is not to criticise the two actors who embody the leads. George MacKay is superb as a soldier who experiences immense suffering and torment on a journey he is less than willing to undertake from the first, and finds himself opening up his emotions and feelings more and more as the film progresses. Dean-Charles Chapman is a good match as a slightly more naïve youngster, desperate to do the right thing and selfless in his courage. These two move on a journey that essentially sees them handed over from one big-star cameo to another (something that is sometimes a little distracting, if necessary to allow these brief appearances to have character impact) with Firth, Strong, Cumberbatch, Madden et al all delivering terrific work in a few short minutes on screen.

Mendes’ direction technically is faultless, and the style chosen really adds huge and unrepeatable visual benefits, all superbly caught by Roger Deakins’ sublimely beautiful photography. At one moment a flare is fired – and we see it arch out of shot and then repair behind us in real time as the characters move forward. At another, an aerial dogfight goes from distant to alarmingly close. The countryside recedes hauntingly as a ride is hitched from a motorised regiment. 

The single-take effect does make it far easier to relate in these moments to the soldiers. It works less well at smaller moments – and arguably could have been replaced by a more conventional style here to give even more impact to the rest – but its execution is perfect. Maybe too perfect, as it doesn’t always make room for the heart. Hollywood’s directors seem more and more drawn to the long take for the immersive, big-screen quality they carry – four of the last five Oscars have gone to directors whose films are almost entirely made up with them. But they create – as is sometimes the case with 1917 – something that is a product for the largest screen, immersive experiences that perhaps lack rewarding depth on later revisits.

The Imitation Game (2014)

Benedict Cumberbatch saves the world in smug, empty mess The Imitation Game

Director: Morten Tyldum

Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch (Alan Turing), Keira Knightley (Joan Clarke), Matthew Goode (Hugh Alexander), Rory Kinnear (Detective Nock), Allen Leech (John Cairncross), Matthew Beard (Peter Hilton), Charles Dance (Commander Alastair Dennison), Mark Strong (Maj General Stewart Menzies)

“Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things no one can imagine”. If there is anything that captures the smug self-satisfaction of this ludicrously pleased-with-itself film, it’s that convoluted phrase, with which the film is so pleased that it is repeated no fewer than four times. What does it mean really? Nothing of course, it carries all the meaning of a fortune cookie. Turing is certainly someone whom you could expect something of, since the film is at pains from the start to demonstrate he is a maths prodigy and a genius. But then that would spoil the romance of the film suggesting that because Turing is socially maladjusted, he is somehow unlikely to achieve something – or that achieving something would be even more special having overcome the “disability” of his personality.

Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) is under police suspicion in 1951 after a mysterious break-in at his Manchester home. A keen detective (Rory Kinnear) suspects he may be a Russian agent – why else does he have no military record? But we know different, as flashbacks show Turing working at Bletchley Park on the cracking of the German cipher machine Enigma. Working with the support of an MI6 officer (Mark Strong), Turing has to win the trust of his team – with the support of best friend and maths genius Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley) – to build a ground-breaking computer that could crack the impossible code. But back in 1951, Turing is in trouble: he’s gay and that’s a crime in post-war Britain.

Now, Turing’s personality in this film. In real life, Turing was an eccentric, but perfectly capable of functioning perfectly normally in society. That’s not dramatic enough for the film, so Turing is reimagined as someone practically afflicted by Aspergers syndrome, incapable of understanding or relating to people without severe effort and prompting. Of course this is really there to introduce conflict – first with his team (who need to be won round to loving the old eccentric genius), secondly with his boss (who can’t stand his inability to fit in) and thirdly with the police (who can use it to write him off). It’s a film-disability for a character to overcome, another puffed up triumph that we can celebrate, while at the same time pat ourselves on the back because this is a victory for those “not normal”. But it’s probably bollocks. 

But then that fits in rather nicely with the whole film, which is more or less probably bollocks from start to finish. The film of course can’t dramatise maths or computing very well, so it throws us all sorts of feeble clichés from tired old film genres instead. Charles Dance plays a reimagined Denniston (in real life a cryptographer) as a standard obstructive boss who all but shrieks “you’re off the case Turing!” at the one-hour mark. The key moment of inspiration of course comes from flirty pub conversation with a charming secretary. Running around and frantic throwing of papers takes the place of all that boring maths. 

The film can’t resist any level of dramatic cliché. When a member of the code-breaking team mentions in passing “I have a brother in the navy you know”, as sure as eggs is eggs you can bet the team will decipher a message that could save his life but will be forced to make A Terrible Choice. Of course even this picture of a small code-breaking team making the calls themselves over which messages to act on is nonsense – it’s a decision that would be so far above their pay grade, they should be taking oxygen just thinking about it. But in this bonkers version of the universe, Turing  himself makes the call to keep the initial breaking of the code a secret, and the government happily allows him alone to make the call about which codes to act on. Oh for goodness sake, spare me.

But then this is a film that wants to turn Turing into the man who won the war single-handed. While Turing was one of the key figures who made the breakthrough, this was a massive team effort, not one man’s inspiration, and reducing the victory of the war down to one (film cliché) difficult genius is the same old ripe nonsense we’ve seen many, many times before. The film tries to pretend that Bletchley Park and the breaking of Enigma, and Turing himself, is an unknown story – when it’s been pretty well-known since it was announced by the Government in the 1980s.

The film is rubbish, but it’s also gutless. Of course “fifth man” John Cairncross is part of the team – and of course Turing discovers he is a spy. (The reveal of course is due to the same old tedious movie cliché of “I found a book on his desk that was the key book he used for the code”.) And then in a moment of stunning tastelessness, Cairncross blackmails Turing into keeping his mouth shut which he agrees to do – an action that, if it had ever happened in real life, would have been an appalling moment of treachery from Turing, and reinforces all the suspicions of the time that homosexuals couldn’t be trusted. 

Ah yes, homosexuality. This film is very, very, very proud of its crusading actions to expose the cruel treatment of Turing for his homosexuality. At the same time, the film is of course way too gutless to even begin to show Turing doing anything actually gay (he doesn’t even so much as hold another man’s hand) during the film. The one genuine moment of love the character is allowed to express, is in the form of a crush on a schoolfriend. (The film substitutes renaming Turing’s machine “Victory” after this school friend “Christopher”, the film keen to try and plug the gap of this film featuring virtually no LGBTQ content at all). But the film preaches intensly and proudly about the equal rights of homosexuality, while veering away with squeamishness from putting anything remotely homosexual on the screen.

The shoddy writing, over-written and self-important, is matched up with Morten Tyldum’s flat, “prestige” film-making that reduces everything to a chocolate box. The film does have some acting beyond what it deserves. Benedict Cumberbatch is good as Turing, although his performance is a remix of some of his greatest hits from past projects, from Hawking to Sherlock, and you feel hardly it’s a stretch for him – even if he plays with it real, and genuine, emotional commitment. Keira Knightley’s cut-glass accent is practically a cliché, but this is one of her best performances with real warmth and empathy. Most of the rest of the cast though are serviceable at best.

“Serviceable”, however, is still better than the film itself, which is a cliché-ridden, gutless, plodding and highly average pile of nothing at all – a totally over-hyped, over-promoted and completely empty film that is about a zillion times less interesting, brave or revealing than Hugh Whitemore’s 1980s play Breaking the Code. Not worth your time.

The Fifth Estate (2013)

Benedict Cumberbatch and Daniel Bruhl struggle through this turgid retelling of hacking derring-do in The Fifth Estate

Director: Bill Condon

Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch (Julian Assange), Daniel Brühl (Daniel Domscheit-Berg), Alicia Vikander (Anke Domscheit-Berg), Anthony Mackie (Sam Coulson), David Thewlis (Nick Davies), Stanley Tucci (James Boswell), Laura Linney (Sarah Shaw), Moritz Bleibtrue (Marcus), Carice van Houten (Birgitta Jónsdóttir), Peter Capaldi (Alan Rusbridger), Dan Stevens (Ian Katz), Alexander Siddig (Dr Tarek Haliseh)

In 2010 the world was thrown into turmoil when a website called Wikileaks published a host of top-secret government documents that revealed a never-ending stream of Western wrong-doing during the war on terror. The leak was co-published by WikiLeaks and the Guardian and New York Times. However Wikileaks founder Julian Assange (played here by Benedict Cumberbatch) had other ideals – namely that the files should not be redacted in any way to protect serving US officials or informants in hostile countries. 

It should be a gripping story of the state failing to keep up with the speed of modern communications. But instead this is one hell of a turgid, dull info-dump of a film that turns this potentially explosive event into something about as gripping as watching a series of people type into a computer. On top of that, the film totally fails to develop any proper personality dynamics to engage your interest, and instead falls back into the usual crude filmic language of a star-struck protégé realising his mentor has feet of clay.

Bill Condon’s direction is totally incapable of making the entry of data into a computer dynamic or visual, and is completely unable to bring the world of computer hacking and data search to life. In fact, there is so much information given to the viewers (rather than drama) that the impression I was left with is that Condon doesn’t really understand what’s going on in the movie anyway. He certainly doesn’t manage to make it interesting or feel that important. 

Visually, the film is flat and falls back on superimposing text on the screen when people type or creating a sort of “mind palace” office to represent the inner workings of the Wikileaks server (which is basically just a big office space). In fact, the film gets less interesting as it progresses – which is a real shame after a nifty credits sequence that chronicles in images the development of the press from cave paintings, through the Rosetta stone, printing, television and the internet. 

Not to mention the lack of drama about this. Things are just happening – we never get any sense of the danger or the world-changing impact, or any reason why we should care. Poor Anthony Mackie, Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci are wheeled out as a trio of American government big wigs who talk at each other at great length about what is going on and how it will endanger government assets – but it’s all show and not tell. The plight of a Tunisian informant – played with his usual skill by Alexander Siddig – is reduced to a few scenes, a human element that gets trimmed so much it carries little impact. 

The film also deals with the personality clashes Assange inspires, here interpreted as a borderline sociopathic monster, an egotist and liar interested only in his own legend. Benedict Cumberbatch gives a superbly detailed and richly observed impersonation of Assange, but the character has no depth. He’s merely a sort of phantom monster, who the film slowly reveals has no conscience. Compare it to the presentation of Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network (a film that is everything this clunking disaster is not). That film is also told from the prospective of a disillusioned former colleague, but there our view of the central character is shaded and given depth – and we are encouraged to recognise we are seeing one person’s perspective. Here the film swallows whole the side of the story presented by Daniel Berg.

Berg played with a disengaged flatness by Daniel Brühl, snoozing through a part shorn of any dynamism, whose views oscillate constantly until he finally settles for being a campaigner to keep sources safe. Alicia Vikander gets shockingly short shrift as a girlfriend – she even has the obligatory “stop working on the management of earth-shattering leaks and come to bed” scene. Berg allies himself with the traditional media, similarly portrayed with a clunking obviousness: David Thewlis is a standard shouty journalist, Peter Capaldi a chin-stroking concerned editor. 

The Fifth Elementis flat and unable to dramatise the world of computer coding. The dialogue is turgid and obvious (there is a terribly obvious metaphor of Assange constantly lying about the reason for his white hair – he can’t be trusted you see!) and the performances are either dull, clichéd or saddled with this terrible writing. At the end, as Cumberbatch plays Assange denouncing the entire film in a reconstruction of a talking head interview, you get a sense of the more interesting, fourth-wall-leaning film this might have been. But sadly the rest of the film reminds you what a flat, tedious, stumbling, confused, inexplicable misfire this really is.