The Power of the Cumberbatch

When did you first experience Benedict Cumberbatch? Was it in the British television series, “Sherlock” (2010-) when you first beheld those dreamy mismatched eyes? Did you discover his signature snark in a Marvel film as Doctor Strange (2016)? Or was his brilliance revealed to you when he embodied Alan Turing in the Oscar-winning film, “The Imitation Game” (2014)? Cumberbatch was nominated for an Academy Award for that role. You might know him for his voice work…the menacing Dragon Smaug in “Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” (2013) or perhaps the updated animated “The Grinch” (2018) where he plays the titular anti-Christmas, conniving Grinch.

Are you sensing a pattern? Or perhaps, a lack of pattern?! A British sleuth that is perhaps brilliant despite a drug addiction and extreme aversion to other humans. A Superhero who looks like he belongs in a turn of the century circus show. A quiet genius who builds a machine to crack Nazi codes for MI6; a hero, who gets sent to prison for the crime of being a gay man in 1950’s England. A sleuth, a dragon, a magician, a mathmetician…Cumberbatch plays them all with such relish and vigor that these characters come alive and you forget the actor behind the portrayal. Benedict Cumberbatch is a consummate professional and has engendered himself to his adoring public with a boyish silliness and a sincere lack of ego.

Into this already varied body of work, Cumberbatch has added three new roles. During the early months of the pandemic, “The Courier” (2020) opened in theaters and then went to streaming. The true story of a British businessman who becomes a spy in Soviet Russia, Cumberbatch becomes an awkward pawn, a successful International businessman, and then a broken man; a tortured prisoner. It’s an incredible physical and psychological transformation.

He also had two films open this year showcasing two very different men. The Edwardian illustrator and artist, Louis Wain, has his head in the clouds and visions that clash with the hard reality of his life. The other, a churlish cowboy in 1920’s Montana, Phil’s created his own morality play and sense of order, is tormented by what he sees as a betrayal to his way of life.

Cumberbatch cracking up moderator Annette Insdorf as director Jane Campion looks on, Telluride Film Festival 2021

I got to see both “The Electrical Life of Louis Wain” and “The Power of the Dog” at the 2021 Telluride Film Festival. I like to imagine that filming director Will Sharpe‘s whimsical film, “Electrical” was an antidote to the pain and bitterness Cumberbatch had to embody for Jane Campion‘s “Dog”. Louis Wain was an artist/inventor/tradesman and beholden to his sisters as their primary breadwinner. Cumberbatch portrays this man known for his psychedelic cat paintings as touched by brilliance but out of touch with reality. He’s saved by the love of a woman also willing to buck conventions, the luminous Claire Foy. She’s much missed when she leaves the film. Sadly the lack of business savvy almost bankrupts this already financially-challenged household and without a benefactor (Taika Waikiki), the family would’ve been homeless. It’s nice to see a softer side in a character’s portrayal and he captures the vulnerability perfectly. An interesting film that provides a great showcase for Cumberbatch’s talents.

Benedict Cumberbatch looking dapper for his “The Electrical Life of Louis Wain” screening at the Telluride Film Festival (photo credit: Vivien Killilea/Getty Images)

My favorite film of the year will likely be “The Power of the Dog”. I was blown away at the depth of emotional complexity in both the story and the character of Phil. Having some of the cast and the director present for the screening and then seeing how gorgeous the film looked on a screen in the park, gave the movie even more resonance for me. The story centers on the dynamics between four people: the brothers who live together on the ranch and are as different as a shined shoe and a sweaty sock. And the interlopers to their world, Rose (Kirsten Dunst), the widow who dares to love George (Jesse Plemons) and her son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee, brilliant). There’s two other elements that are like characters to the film’s story: the ranch and the space around the ranch, and the dead cowboy who’s a legend in the town and Phil’s only love.

Outdoor screening of “The Power of the Dog”, a perfect setting for this film at the Telluride Film Festival, 2021

The tension between the brothers is masterfully played. Phil is a talker and a braggart and George is the quiet straightlaced one. Cumberbatch projects the frenetic energy of someone who knows that the dynamic between them has shifted and no matter how much Phil taunts and teases George, there’s a rift. Their roles are clearly defined. Phil buys the drinks and makes the toast as they arrive in town after the cattle drive. He glorifies his mentor, Buck Henry and tries to make the moment memorable to George. Instead, George tries to get the men to dinner and doesn’t want to drink his shot. Then as Phil taunts the young waiter, the willow-thin, effeminate Peter, to give the men something to laugh at…there’s also the sense that Peter offends Phil. An attraction that repels him. When George finds Rose crying after the dinner, he finds the courage to reach out to her.

When George brings Rose home as his wife, the anger and betrayal is felt keenly by Phil. Campion pulls in close to watch the tears brim in Cumberbatch’s eyes as he angrily strides out of his room to escape the sounds of their lovemaking. From the moment Rose enters the ranch, Phil is rude, obstinant and churlish. Mocking her attempts at piano playing and stomping about throwing her daggers with his eyes. There’s a sense that wherever Rose is in the house, she can smell his unwashed stink and sense his judgmental presence. She turns to drinking to steady her nerves.

Things come to a head once Peter comes to the ranch for summer break bringing his unsettling presence and anatomic studies of splayed-open dead animals. He learns of Phil’s obsession with Buck Henry and allows himself to be taken under his wing. He’s stumbled unto an intriguing plan to rescue his mother and by extension, himself. This twist in the story, that of the young awkward man outwitting the seasoned cowboy by using flattery and flirting, is subtle enough that many people have missed it. There’s a scene of Phil masturbating with Buck Henry’s bandana (with the initials “B H”) but that can also be misunderstood or missed. The whole homoerotic subtext seems to have been missed by some.

The novel the movie is based on, The Power of the Dog, Thomas Savage (1968)

I was so intrigued by the story that I hunted down the book. There was only one in the library system here (the Main Line near Philadelphia) and it took 2 weeks to arrive. The film follows the story though it eliminates a big chunk of backstory; that of the husband of Rose, Peter’s father. He commits suicide after being bullied with words and fists by Phil. Neither Rose nor Peter know this detail in the book but it makes the ending that more poignant. The relationship between Phil and Buck Henry is even less explicit in the novel. There’s no lingering glances at the other cowboy’s naked bodies as they bath. And no hidden satchel of nudie portraits of both men and women for Peter to discover.

Returning the book to the libary, I revisit the film at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute

Having seen the film three months prior, I wanted to see it in the theater to see if it would still hold me in its thrall. Knowing the plot points, I could focus on the marvelous cinematography and enjoy the soundtrack. I was more conscious of the physical space, the distance that Phil always maintains between himself and Rose. The frightened rabbit that soothes Rose, who is also a frightened rabbit trapped in her bedroom. The way Peter lays his hand on Phil and leaves it there to make a connection, bridging their distance, that leads Phil to trust him. The tender looks exchanged between Rose and George (married in real life) and the way his parents move to welcome Rose into the family once Phil is gone…the gift of rings and the acceptance of an invitation to Christmas.

As I left the theater, I heard an older couple exclaiming to each other, “Well, I certainly missed something there” and “How did he die?” It was all I could do to not interrupt their exit and ask if I could explain the plot. If only I could send this missive off to them…

Before you watch Benedict Cumberbatch don his cape again for the next Spider-Man movie or for Sam Raimi‘s “Doctor Strangelove in the Multiverse of Madness”, watch the film that’s sure to lead to another Academy nomination for his superb acting–“The Power of the Dog”.

Love this quote from Campion as told to Indiewire

Drinks With Films Rating

5 shots of rotgut whiskey served up at the saloon (out of 5) for “The Power of the Dog”

2 cups of strangely flavored tea in whimsical cat-shaped cups (out of 5) for “The Electrical Life of Louis Wane”

2 1/2 shots of Russian vodka while pretending to not be a spy (out of 5) for “The Courier”

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