Two-time Academy Award nominee Benedict Cumberbatch has been on our screens for just twenty years, but already has a résumé that other actors would die for, having played seminal roles in the MCU and Star Trek universes, alongside more serious work in period pieces, World War Two thrillers, and romantic dramas.
Among these lauded appearances, however, there is a wealth of less well-known but equally fascinating work. Here are ten great Benedict Cumberbatch performances that never get talked about.
10. Amazing Grace
With some impressive early supporting performances in Titanic (1997) and Black Hawk Down (2001), Ioan Gruffudd came to wider attention as Richard Reed in Fantastic Four (2005). The following year, he received his first star billing for Amazing Grace (2006), an earnest and touching portrait of William Wilberforce, the abolitionist who worked tirelessly to make the slave trade illegal in the United Kingdom, a feat he achieved in 1807. The film barely broke even at the box office, but is well worth a rewatch, if only for the panoply of Hollywood A-listers it contains. Ciarán Hinds, Toby Jones, Michael Gambon, and Albert Finney – who plays a repentant former slave ship captain in one of his final film roles – all add heft, as does Cumberbatch, who, already channeling the authority figure persona that would bring him so much success in years to come, effortlessly portrays British Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger.
9. Four Lions
It’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance from Cumberbatch in this excellent satire from legendary British comedy writer and director Chris Morris. Famous for his work on the whip-smart send-up of 1990s news channels The Day Today, Morris’s material became edgier and edgier throughout the 1990s and 2000s. In Four Lions, he turned his hand to the story of four wannabe British Muslim suicide bombers. It hardly sounds like laugh-a-minute material, but Morris mines comedy gold, with Riz Ahmed (Rogue One) as the committed leader of his “cell”, which is comprised of his idiot cousin (Kayvan Novak); a friend who has the loopy idea of training crows to carry bombs (Adeel Akhtar); and a white British man (Nigel Lindsay) who converts to Islam and wants to create an Islamic state – in his working-class hometown in the north of England. Cumberbatch makes the briefest of appearances in the final act as Ed, a negotiator trying to talk the hapless group out of launching their attack.
8. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Even grizzled movie-goers may be surprised to find the MCU was not the first mega-franchise Cumberbatch appeared in. Back in 2012, Cumberbatch channeled Andy Serkis and duly donned the motion capture suit for a brief appearance in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey as Smaug. Cumberbatch also delivered the creature’s lines, though after substantial work on the sound in post-production, his voice is barely recognizable. Cumberbatch reprised the role for sequels The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013) and The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2015), though the law of diminishing returns – and stretching your source materials well beyond breaking point – had by then set in.
7. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Being an ensemble piece, it’s easy to forget that this Academy Award-nominated 2011 spy thriller starred Cumberbatch, who found himself reunited with Ciarán Hinds, with whom he worked with on Amazing Grace, as well as a third collaboration with Toby Jones. Tomas Alfredson’s adaptation of novelist John le Carré’s masterpiece sees Smiley (Gary Oldman), a former MI6 operative, brought back into the fold to seek out a mole at the highest levels of the organization. Cumberbatch plays Peter Guillam, who Smiley recruits to help him investigate the suspects’ files. As spear-carrier to Oldman, Cumberbatch’s role is largely peripheral, though a scene where he uses a clever piece of subterfuge to smuggle top-secret files out of MI6’s headquarters will have viewers on the edge of their seats.
6. The Other Boleyn Girl
Cumberbatch’s big-screen debut was in the underrated 2003 English Civil War film To Kill A King, and his work in this 2008 drama underscores how at home he is in the early modern era. Benefiting from a top-notch cast including Natalie Portman, Scarlett Johansson, Mark Rylance, a pre-stardom Eddie Redmayne, and Eric Bana, the film tells the story of the Tudor king of England Henry VIII (Bana), and his doomed relationship with his second wife, Anne Boleyn (Portman), who was executed on Henry’s orders for a supposed affair with one of his courtiers. In the meantime, Boleyn’s sister Mary (Johansson) begins a romance with Henry while Mary’s husband William Carey – played with uprightness and likeability by Cumberbatch – is away from court. The Other Boleyn Girl, like the best-selling Phillippa Gregory novel it is based on, takes some liberties with history (the affair that forms the nucleus of the story was never proved), and the film received middling reviews, but both Portman and Johansson do excellent work.
5. The Fifth Estate
2013’s The Fifth Estate has many faults, but Cumberbatch’s brilliant work in the lead role is not among them. Cumberbatch wore a blond wig and blue contact lenses to play the part of Julian Assange, the founder of the WikiLeaks website that exposed countless top-secret documents, including hundreds of thousands of American diplomatic cables, to public scrutiny in the late 2000s and early 2010s. Many of the film’s problems derive from problems with tone, and the uncertainty as to whether to present Assange’s story as one of high-minded reportage on morally dubious goings-on at the heart of politics, or as a private citizen meddling in affairs of government. Watch out, however, for some excellent work in supporting roles by then Doctor Who Peter Capaldi, Academy Award nominee Laura Linney, and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine’s Alexander Siddig.
4. War Horse
Cumberbatch’s sole collaboration with Steven Spielberg, 2011’s War Horse tells the little-known story of how horses were used on the front line during World War One. A conflict that is overwhelmingly associated with the earliest use of tanks also saw the world’s final cavalry charges, before generals realized that mounted soldiers were simply too exposed to rifle and machine gun fire for the tactic to work. Much blood was spilled in the learning of this lesson, and Spielberg throws Cumberbatch right in the middle of the action as Major Stewart, a British commanding officer whose cavalry charge into the center of a German position meets with disaster. War Horse was nominated for six Academy Awards, but lost out to the year’s big hits, Martin Scorsese’s The Artist, and adventure drama Hugo.
Released to coincide with the 200th anniversary of the birth of the discoverer of evolution, this 2009 Charles Darwin biopic bombed at the box office. But Paul Bettany – then on a career high following his appearances alongside Russell Crowe in Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World and opposite Tom Hanks in The Da Vinci Code – is perfectly cast as the daydreaming natural scientist, with his real-life partner Jennifer Connolly as Darwin’s wife. Cumberbatch dons the whiskers and greatcoat of a nineteenth-century English gentleman, and provides enthusiastic support as Darwin’s best friend, Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker. Also starring Toby Jones and Jeremy Northam, Creation was hobbled before it was released, struggling to find a distributor in the United States thanks to evangelical Christian objections over the propriety of its subject matter.
This 2011 low-budget drama sank without trace on release, but offers intrigue and tension in a respectable and well-directed domestic drama. Cumberbatch shines as David, whose marriage to Dawn (Claire Foy’s second film role, years before her Primetime Emmy-winning work as Queen Elizabeth in The Queen) is on the brink of failure due to their inability to conceive a child. When David’s ex-Army younger brother Nick (Shaun Evans) turns up, he begins revealing family secrets to the community that would be best left unsaid. Set against the quiet environs of the English countryside, Foy’s good, nuanced work as Dawn prefigured her later success, but Cumberbatch’s towering performance that elevates the material above the humdrum.
1. 12 Years A Slave
The critical buzz for Steve McQueen’s multiple Academy Award-winning drama rightly centered around Chiwetel Ejiofor’s mesmerizing performance as Black freeman Solomon Northup, whose quiet life in antebellum America is shattered when he is abducted and taken to a slave plantation in the Deep South, and Lupita Nyong’o, who won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her faultless work as Patsey, a cotton picker who is abused by her owner. But Cumberbatch’s contribution as William Ford, a kindly slaveowner who refuses to acknowledge the moral bankruptcy of the slavery that provides his wealth, is notable both for its believability and its centrality to the plot. Cumberbatch – who reveals a hitherto-unsuspected ability to assume an American accent – manages to project both a well-meaning personality and moral fecklessness in the role. Unable to protect Northup from the depredations of an overseer (Paul Dano) who ignores his authority, Ford’s decision to sell Northup on to sadistic fellow slaveowner Epps (played by a suitably malicious Michael Fassbender) sends Northup even further into misery.