The Rise and Fall (Season) of Benedict Cumberbatch: TIFF 2021

Every festival season has its standout star — the person who shows up in two or three or four movies in quick programming succession, suddenly seems ubiquitous on all those red carpets, becomes the unofficial face of the awards-circuit gauntlet. This year, we already have a few strong candidates. There’s Oscar Isaac, who hit Venice with the HBO miniseries redo of Scenes From a Marriage, Dune, and The Card Counter, Paul Schrader’s latest character study of existentially brooding, solitary men. (Find someone to love you the way Schrader loves Pickpocket.) Or maybe it’s Isaac’s Marriage co-star Jessica Chastain, who helped send Twitter into a tizzy when the duo conducted pre-screening electricity on the Lido, and whose televangelist biopic The Eyes of Tammy Faye is giving the actor her moment in the prosthetics-and-crying-jags-performance spotlight. Some might even make a case for Tim Roth, courtesy of an art-house double shot that lets him go from shades of gray (Bergman Island) to you-want-it-darker (Sundown).

For our money, however, there’s really only one possible lead contender: Benedict Cumberbatch. Starting with The Power of the Dog, his quadruple-threat entry (it made the lineups for Venice, Telluride, Toronto and New York) and the much-needed return to the big screen for Jane Campion, and followed quickly by the Telluride-to-TIFF dramedy The Electrical Life of Louis Wain, the British star/all-around internet thirst-trap gave festival audiences interesting samples of his range. You can see hints of the go-to moves and tics that the 45-year-old star usually employs (every actor has them, some more than others) in his portrayals of the complicated, confused, cut-off-from-social-norms men in both of these movies. But taken together, the two films suggest that he might be in the midst of switching to higher gears. The degree of difficulty is admittedly far more daunting in one project over the other, yet each of these turns edge him into interesting, challenging territory. We are currently witnessing the rise and fall season of Cumberbatch.

First, the superior of the twins. An adaptation of Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel, The Power of the Dog is a Western that falls somewhere between revisionist and ragingly Freudian — a frontier tale of brothers not characterized by anything resembling brotherly love. We’re in Montana, still barely tamed even though the year is 1925. Cumberbatch’s character is a born-and-bred cowboy, albeit one cursed with the very non-cowboyish name of Phil Burbank. He went away to an Eastern college once upon a time, then came back to run the family’s cattle ranch. His partner in the endeavor is his sibling, George (Jesse Plemons). George is as quiet and fastidious as Phil is brash and earthy, seemingly one polka-dotted bow tie away from being a dandy. Phil calls him “Fatso,” even though George isn’t particularly fat. It just gives Phil the psychological edge over this blood-related beta male.

A woman enters the picture, a widow named Rose (Kirsten Dunst, whose talents and silent-movie-star eyes are put to great use). She runs a restaurant attached to a bar a few towns over, where the rowdy cowhands like to drink after they’ve herded the steers along. Rose and George take a shine to each other; soon, they’re married, which means she’s moving into the Burbank ranch. This does not please Phil. It also means that her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a gangly, awkward teen who loves science and making paper flowers, will be around more. Phil does not like Peter. The feeling is mutual. The continual humiliation that the cowboy dishes out, along with his fellow prairie-dusted bullies, in regard to the feminine boy seems conspicuously cruel, but as with most things that involve Phil, the cruelty is the point.

There’s a reason Cumberbatch’s man of the west particularly doesn’t care for the lad, one that’s so obvious you can barely call it a secret. Let’s just say there’s plentiful talk about “Bronco Henry,” Phil’s mentor in all things horse-related, and the impact he left on this tortured cowboy. (Lotta fetishistic saddle-polishing happening during Phil’s downtime.) This is what the actor has to play with, a John Wayne type overcompensating for oceans of insecurities churning inside his gut, always balling his calloused hands into defensive fists. He’s also got to compete with the background, given that Campion has made a proper, old-school Western, which fills every inch of the frame with majestic landscapes and a meticulously recreated, hardscrabble way of life.

Yet the notes Cumberbatch finds in this sensitive brute resonate in a way that feels surprising. There’s a concrete sense that you’re watching him playing the somebody this character thinks he should be, a sort of dual act of commitment to a persona. And when he occasionally drops the mask — when he momentarily lets you into Phil’s well-guarded mindset — there’s an even greater sense that you’re watching an actor feel his way through a moment. There have been few close-ups this year that have felt so exhilarating as the one featuring Cumberbatch’s reaction to hearing that his brother, with whom he desperately wants an unearned comradeship, has gotten hitched on the sly. It’s the look of someone taking in information, trying to hide a seismic reaction, partially failing to conceal said reaction, and then attempting to shut the emotional door as quickly as possible. It’s subtle, little more than 30 seconds of screen time, and it’s unforgettably devastating.

So much of what the star is doing with this take on toxic frontier masculinity makes up for some of the weaker aspects of the movie: the lopsided dynamic of the brothers, the over-reliance on a dated concept of manly code-switching, some melodramatic sequences that feel like they could turn into Cliffs Notes on Camp at any second. There’s a fearlessness in his labor here as well that you can tell Campion, as always a great director of actors, loves too — it’s a very game-recognizes-game type of project. By the time you find out what the film’s title means (it comes from a biblical verse), Cumberbatch has given this morally dubious figure an arc that lends pathos to the tragedy. It’s some of the best work he’s ever done that didn’t involve deductive sleuthing.

Cumberbatch in ‘The Electrical Life of Louis Wain.’

If Dog gave us a tamped-down, closed-off Benedict, someone white-knuckling it to keep the lid on things, his next festival film offered up a friskier, no-filter version of a feline-obsessed misfit. The Electrical Life of Louis Wain — even the title screams “for you utmost consideration” — is co-writer/director Will Sharpe’s attempt to bring the 19th century artist back into the public consciousness, and give the man credited with popularizing the notion of cats as pet-friendly creatures his 15 minutes of prestige-project fame. It’s an extremely potent mix of historical pomposity and irreverent, pin-pricking Brit whimsy, ambitiously aiming for the Venn diagram middle between Masterpiece Theater and Monty Python.

Cumberbatch is Wain, an ambidextrous sketch savant who’s socially maladjusted to a fault. Still, given he has to support his many sisters and boho mother in Victorian England, Wain takes a job doodling caricatures for a newspaper. He also falls in love with an equally neurotic nonconformist named Emily (Claire Foy), the governess tasked with teaching his youngest of the family. After they marry and take in a stray cat, Louis begins to focus on drawing lots of these furry little friends. They become a huge PR boost for animals once considered exotic, mysterious, and non-domesticated.

All is grand until it is not, and what starts as a manic romp pivots into a maudlin tearjerker, and then a conventional portrait of an eccentric, and then the kind of calculated crowd-pleaser that fills fall schedules year in and year out. (Put it to you this way: It’s a film that has exactly zero problem subtitling the meows of cats, complete with purposefully bad syntax and cute misspellings.) Cumberbatch, however, is the glue that keeps things together, and it’s evident that he’s both adding nuances and amping up the broader strokes when necessary, especially in the movie’s strong first half. A huge emotional breakdown is shown simply through Wain’s inability to properly light a match, a small gesture the actor somehow gives the right amount of weight. He plays well with others here, from Foy to Andrea Riseborough’s shrieking uptight sister and Toby Jones’ stiff-upper-lipped editor. He hits his marks and then exceeds them, keeping things unpredictable even when the movie sticks to the most obvious route imaginable.

And along with that darker-natured Cumberbatch film making the rounds, The Electrical Life of Louis Wain also proves that, right now, you can throw just about anything at the actor and he’ll make it feel compelling — even a rote role. If Cumberbatch isn’t in his autumn years, he has certainly made this year’s autumn his.