Are there many flawed geniuses left for Benedict Cumberbatch to play? The actor has already stepped into the shoes of Stephen Hawking, Vincent Van Gogh and Sherlock Holmes. Right now he’s making a film about troubled wartime codebreaker Alan Turing. And here he is in ‘The Fifth Estate’, sporting lank white hair, puffy eyes and a paranoid glare. He is Julian Assange, WikiLeaks founder and, depending where you stand, radical crusader or crazed egomaniac – or both.
‘The Fifth Estate’ indulges both views without offering much about the man that feels new or original. Bill Condon’s frenetic, pacy movie feels like a character assessment in progress as it dashes through the rise of WikiLeaks and Assange’s ballooning self-importance with the swiftness of a broadband speed not yet invented. It honours his ballsy achievements – gathering and publishing explosive political and corporate documents – and tries, weakly, to find some explanation in his childhood.
It offers a very British view of Assange. It starts close to home, in King’s Cross, with The Guardian collaborating with Assange in 2010, in scenes that feel a bit like ‘In the Loop’ without gags (partly because Peter Capaldi plays editor Alan Rusbridger). And it ends with the same journalists – David Thewlis plays investigative reporter Nick Davies – wondering if they’ve created a monster. Inbetween it leaps back a few years to track how Assange recruited Daniel Schmitt (Daniel Brühl) to assist his mission. Less convincing is the film’s leaning on a neon-cyber-grungy aesthetic as Assange spends time in Berlin.
The film that ‘The Fifth Estate’ most resembles is ‘The Social Network’. The parallels are clear: a social outcast exorcising demons via technology; the vicious betrayal of a business partner; the swift transformation of news into drama. But ‘The Fifth Estate’ doesn’t have the same sharp focus or insight. It’s adequate and often fun, but no match for Cumberbatch’s talents: physically, his Assange is far more complex and intriguing than most of the things we hear him say or see him do.