The Fifth Estate - DVD Review

'Cumberbatch swaggers through the film like an antipodean hybrid of Draco Malfoy and Dr. Sheldon Cooper'

Benedict Cumberbatch clearly has an inclination for - or perhaps a fascination with - characters who arguably display extraordinary intellectual capabilities but are lacking in social skills and awareness. Ten years ago we saw him portray the young Stephen Hawking; more recently his role as Stephen Moffat’s 21st Century Sherlock Holmes has garnered universal praise; and last year’s The Fifth Estate adds WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to Cumberbatch’s ever-growing back catalogue of high-functioning unsociables.

“I've heard people say I dangle on the autistic spectrum”, Assange postulates at one point during the film; it’s thanks to Cumberbatch’s compelling and uncanny performance that we can believe this, even if his Assange doesn’t seem entirely convinced of his own words. Loaded with an arrogant Australian twang and a greasy shock of bleached hair, Cumberbatch swaggers through the film like an antipodean hybrid of Draco Malfoy and Dr. Sheldon Cooper. In fact, if the actor weren’t such an enigmatic presence, Cumberbatch’s Assange would almost certainly become unbearable. As it is, the character grates every so often (that is, when Cumberbatch wants him to) and is regularly unlikeable, but never to the point of distraction.

The remaining elements of The Fifth Estate fluctuate wildly in terms of how successful they are. Daniel Brühl impresses opposite Cumberbatch as Assange’s sometime WikiLeaks partner Daniel Berg, but can only do so much with a character who occasionally feels underwritten and just too vanilla when positioned against his associate. Elsewhere, Peter Capaldi underwhelms as Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger, with the ever-welcome David Thewlis delivering a disappointingly generic performance alongside him as journalist Nick Davies.

Bill Condon’s direction is equally wavering, effectively crafting the nightclubs and tech conventions Assange and Berg frequent but employing some alarmingly outdated elements elsewhere. The somewhat bizarre choice by the director to depict “cyberspace” as a Matrix-esque infinite grid of computer workstations fails to ring true throughout. Josh Singer’s screenplay also feels somewhat unsteady, the former West Wing writer at his most impressive and clearly at home with Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci’s White House staff members, but struggling to bring the dialogue to life elsewhere.

An issue which both Condon and Singer never convincingly manage to conquer is that, despite clearly making The Fifth Estate in the mould of a thriller, many of the events here just aren’t that thrilling. Time and again the release of major secrets and documents by WikiLeaks is built up, only for the reveal to feel somewhat anticlimactic, doled out as a series of quick keyboard strokes that leave you wanting more.

The focus on the growing rift between Assange and Berg as they build up WikiLeaks together has the familiar shadow of David Fincher’s The Social Network regularly lingering over it; but again, both writer and director regularly struggle to generate enough drama from the relationship, with only two or three occasions where any real tension is evident. Considering Singer’s screenplay is based in part on the real Berg’s tell-all book about his time working at WikiLeaks, this could have emerged a deliciously brutal character assassination. As it is, whilst Assange is rarely put across sympathetically, you can’t help but feel he’s got off a bit lightly thanks to The Fifth Estate lacking any genuine conviction or bite - something which would undoubtedly have helped to bring Condon’s film to life a lot more.

By Ben Broadribb. Ben is a regular contributor to Film Intel, having previously written at Some Like It Hot Fuzz. He is normally seen in the wild wearing t-shirts containing obscure film references. He is a geek, often unashamedly so. He's also on and Twitter.

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