The interesting thing about Benedict Cumberbatch’s early career isn’t the fact his drama teacher considered him the most talented student he ever taught. Unless his drama teacher also happened to teach, say, Meryl Streep or Daniel Day-Lewis, Cumberbatch being the most talented student he ever taught is as inevitable as the Oscar that will someday adorn the Cumberbatch abode, if not this year, then soon enough. Rather, the interesting thing about Cumberbatch is that despite the drama teacher’s encomium, he counseled the young actor to give up acting anyway, having concluded that Cumberbatch’s talent—along with a name that sounds like a character in an Oz book as written by Charles Dickens—wasn’t the stuff of marquees.
We live in strange times, though, and one of the few upsides of the era is that, right now, Benedict Cumberbatch is a juggernaut. Over the course of the year just past and the new one just unfolding, he’s been in half a dozen ventures, from art films to period pieces to comic-book pictures, bringing his ridiculous range with him—as a civil servant lured into unwanted Cold War heroism (The Courier), a nearly autistic Victorian-cult illustrator fetishizing the fixation of cat lovers everywhere (The Electrical Life of Louis Wain), a post-9/11 military prosecutor ambushed by his conscience at Guantanamo (The Mauritanian), a neurosurgeon and Manhattan one-percenter turned by fate into an astral sorcerer (Spider-Man: No Way Home and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness), and, most prominently, the sadistic and self-loathing rancher in Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog. It’s as likely that Campion’s comeback—more than a quarter of a century after the seminal The Piano—is as much hitched to Cumberbatch’s star as the other way around.
Born to a highbrow thespian family, performing Shakespeare and Ibsen on the British stage from the age of 12 and conquering Hamlet along the way, Cumberbatch nevertheless took no time making his mark on popular culture. Near the outset of his meteoric rise he was Khan in Star Trek Into Darkness and Tolkien’s Smaug the dragon in The Hobbit. The breakthrough, however, was surely Cumberbatch’s updated Sherlock Holmes over four BBC seasons airing in the States beginning in 2010. Remote when not defiantly antisocial, caustic when not bemusedly scathing, brilliant when not possessed of digital-age genius, bearing the police’s informal code name “Freak” and correcting anyone who calls him a psychopath by clarifying he’s merely “a high-functioning sociopath,” the legendary private detective at the center of Sherlock was the ultimate geek as heartthrob, in a dazzling twenty-first-century London slowly going mad. Asperger’s was never so glamorous.
Prophecies of drama teachers aside, so indelible was Cumberbatch’s interpretation of the Arthur Conan Doyle character that it established him as not just a great actor but also that most improbable of things: a star, with all the creative baggage that goes with it. Cumberbatch’s only limitation as an actor has been an inability to entirely suppress a blinding if eccentric intelligence even when the role doesn’t call for it; he has become the go-to for playing eccentric savants—and was nominated for an Oscar for portraying one of the most tormented: the World War II cryptographer Alan Turing in 2014’s The Imitation Game.
For that reason, his performance as Phil Burbank in the harrowing western The Power of the Dog is unlike anything he’s done. The character is possibly the most disturbing to stalk the American frontier since Day-Lewis’s oilman in There Will Be Blood. His malevolence is compounded by the sort of roiling psychosexual dynamics that are de rigueur in Campion’s filmography, where forbidding terrains from New Zealand to Montana drive her characters crazy, id and eros spilling over the strafed landscape. Regardless of whether he overcomes this year’s Oscar sentiment on behalf of Will Smith in King Richard or the ever-formidable Denzel Washington in the Coen brothers’ The Tragedy of Macbeth, it is Cumberbatch’s time, and you don’t need to be Sherlock Holmes to figure that out.
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