The Fifth Estate reviews: is this Benedict Cumberbatch’s finest performance?

"From a distance, he looks like a lizardy angel, courageously saving the world; close up he squints and snuffles like a bleached, greasy mouse"

The Fifth Estate premiered last night at the Toronto Film Festival and the reviews are in. The Bill Condon-directed film, charting the rise of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and his relationship with German tech activist Daniel Domscheit-Berg, earned a mixed response from critics, with many failing to find excitement in the dramatic storyline. But while the film itself divided opinion, reviewers were united in their praise for its star, Benedict Cumberbatch… 


Tim Robey’s three-star review in The Telegraph gushes about the Sherlock actor’s performance, calling him “inspiredly cast, serving up a technically ingenious performance which may be his juiciest ever.” 

Despite criticising Assange and Berg’s relationship as never feeling “like a starting point of any real substance”, Robey comments that “Assange’s arrogant conviction about the steps he’s taking for mankind is certainly a gift to the actor, but Cumberbatch gives us other gifts back: he makes the role a feast of delusional certainty, with paranoid demons nibbling at it from all sides.” 

John DeFore writes in The Hollywood Reporter that Cumberbatch “has the character in hand from the start – his way of brushing into another’s space and making it his office, of not seeing others unless they’re reflecting back some of the energy he emits, of elevating himself by making others’ concerns sound trivial. The actor brings extra ambiguity to scenes in which Assange is ostensibly opening up to people.”

But judging the film as a whole, he does go on to concede that, “Though it will attract attention at the box office, it is unlikely to appeal broadly to moviegoers who, one suspects, have never been as worked up about WikiLeaks as journalists and governments are.

The Guardian’s Catherine Shoard is one of a number of reviewers who took issue with the dramatic qualities of frantic computer typing. Comparing Estate to 2010’s The Social Network, she writes that, “Both films are eager to show that computing is an arena for creative genius, with much clacking on laptops like Steinways. Both also suffer from the problem that watching someone type isn’t, after a while, that exciting.”

As for Cumberbatch, Shoard is another to be sucked in by his beguiling performance as the WikiLeaks founder: “It’s a virtuouso impersonation, from the deep drawl to louche geek twitches… Assange is as extraterrestrial as Cumberbatch’s Khan in last year’s Star Trek, a lip-smacking vampire typing through the night. From a distance, he looks like a lizardy angel, courageously saving the world; close up he squints and snuffles like a bleached, greasy mouse.”

Variety’s Dennis Harvey has a word of criticism for director Bill Condon and scenarist Josh Singer, labelling their film “cluttered and overly frenetic, resulting in a narrative less informative, cogent and even emotionally engaging than Alex Gibney’s recent docu We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks.”

And, unlike his fellow reviewers, Harvey has a word of critique for Cumberbatch, too – he “captures Assange’s slightly otherworldy air, as well as numerous creepier qualities”, but it “feels like a somewhat one-dimensional turn, hemmed in by an overall sensibility that just can’t stop to probe deeper.” 

According to Hitfix, this is “Cumberbatch curdled” – “He looks like he’d smell like bad milk, and he nails that odd lisp of Assange’s as well as the growing vanity the more time he spent in front of cameras.” But like others, Drew McWeeny takes issue with the story itself: “It’s not a whole story. Not yet. And it won’t be until we see the long term effects of what happened on the people involved and on the larger news media. All the effort in the world can’t invent a neat bow to tie around the story that gives it the shape that a movie demands. There are a number of small strong moments in the film, but taken as a whole, it feels like a muddle.”

While full of acclaim for Cumberbatch who is commended for imbuing Assange with “warmth, zeal and modesty”, Indiewire states that “screens filled with glowing green characters are not the same as skies filled with flying monkeys. It’s a cautionary movie politically, but also cinematically: The more our lives are lived online, the more directors are going to have to wrestle with making the inherently undramatic engaging.”

And The Evening Standard’s David Sexton is in full agreement, offering just two stars and bemoaning that “watching people do stuff with computers isn’t just as boring as watching paint dry, it’s a lot more irritating.” Far more interesting is Cumberbatch who he terms “the film’s success” and commends for his transformation into the Australian activist, describing him “speaking in thick-tongued, monotonous Australian accent, simultaneously boring and compelling, affectless and raging, his own reptilian looks for once subsumed in the part, helped by Assange’s long white hair.” 

The Fifth Estate is released in UK cinemas on 11 October – in the meantime, watch “Cumberbatch curdled” in the trailer below…