Photo attribution: Sam Hughes, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
London-born painter, writer, and actor Benedict Timothy Carlton Cumberbatch, CBE, is widely recognized as a kind, out-going, and socially conscious human being—but many of the characters he portrays are the exact opposite.
Cumberbatch chooses roles that intrigue him and allow him to explore a life different from his own, which has given him a wide array of choices. Whether he is playing a moral scientist, an evil rapist, or even Satan himself, Benedict’s talent, style, and passion for entertaining shine through from his first moment on-screen.
While he’s already had a wealth of roles on both the big and small screen, there are a few that stand out above the rest. Beginning with one of his latest roles in Netflix’s The Power Of The Dog, here are seven of Cumberbatch’s most memorable characters to date.
1. Phil Burbank
Phil Burbank in The Power Of The Dog (2021) is a handsome, dirt-covered cowboy with a severe countenance and patriarchal view of the world, even for 1925. Phil and his brother George are wealthy Montana ranch owners, but both men are alone and unmarried. The kinder, more soft-spoken George marries Rose and takes on the role of stepfather to her son, both of whom were once tormented to tears by Phil’s cruelty.
Phil takes this opportunity to continue to torture the woman and her child, which threatens to push the Burbank brothers further apart. Suddenly, and surprisingly, Phil takes Rose’s young son under his wing and seems to be growing closer to him. But what is his purpose? Are his intentions just, or just as cruel as he has proven himself to be?
Cumberbatch truly shows his range in the gritty and unforgiving The Power of The Dog. The transition he makes between his natural countenance and that of Phil is a tremendous feat for any actor, and Hollywood has taken note: The film is up for 12 Oscars this year, with Cumberbatch leading the nominees for Best Performance by an Actor In a Leading Role.
2. Alan Turing
Alan Turing in The Imitation Game (2014) is based on the real-life cryptanalyst Alan Turing. Turing’s nail-biting and heroic code-breaking of the German Enigma Code helped strengthen Britain’s power during WWII and eventually helped to bring down the Third Reich, along with his fellow mathematicians.
Cumberbatch brings to life the anguish, secrecy, and societal cruelty that Turing’s homosexuality received from his peers and his community, which led to his prosecution, chemical castration, and eventual suicide, in addition to his being completely written out of history. Cumberbatch, an avowed feminist and supporter of the LGBTQ+ community, took this role seriously and gives proper weight to Turing’s true importance and heroism.
In 2014, Time magazine designated this role as Cumberbatch’s best thus far, but it still impresses in 2022, coming in at #2 on this list. The cast and crew were highly regarded by the Human Rights Campaign for Cumberbatch’s sensitivity to the role and his impressive, captivating portrayal of the gay mathematician and scientist.
3. Dr. Stephen Strange
Doctor Stephen Strange, who appears in many Marvel movies including his title role in Doctor Strange, is a neurosurgeon who boldly enters the world of mysticism after a life-altering car accident and discovers multiple dimensions filled with trials, tribulations, and secrets that can threaten the entire world. Dr. Strange uses his newfound super-abilities to protect the Marvel universe, and his super-colleagues, from the dangers of reality.
While Stan Lee and Marvel fans everywhere can agree that the visuals are breathtaking, the story is full of action, and the physical fighting is both realistic and fantastic, the movie would nonetheless be incomplete without Cumberbatch as Dr. Strange. Cumberbatch’s personal dedication to his own beliefs in meditation and spirituality brought a calm surrealness to the character, while his tendency to venture out in public wearing full costume garnered even more public excitement for the role.
4. Paul Marshall
Paul Marshall in Atonement (2007) is a cunning, secretive, and narcissistic character bent on making money off the war in WWII and bedding young and naive girls. An heir to a chocolate company, Paul Marshall promotes his personal brand of heroism with gusto, providing candy bars to be included in soldier’s rations during the war, while also making a ton of money and using it to lure young women into his orbit.
Paul Marshall is a snake, and his confused tryst with an underage girl affects the lives of everyone in the story. His lack of empathy and accountability leads another man to be blamed for a crime that he committed, leading to the imprisonment, estrangement, and deaths of many of the main characters. While Paul Marshall is a relatively small role for such an incredibly talented actor, his part is as memorable as it is jarring, which is exactly what was needed from this character.
Cumberbatch thrives in challenging roles that are exactly the opposite of who he is. His portrayal of Paul Marshall spreads goosebumps like wildfire in this beautifully created cinematic exposition, and he furthers the question: Which is more important, truth or belief?
5. Sherlock Holmes
Sherlock Holmes in Sherlock (2010-2017) is one of Cumberbatch’s most beloved television characters. His real-life friendship with Martin Freeman, who plays Watson, adds a certain playfulness and connection that no other actors could replicate. The modernization of the story brings a cocky, logical, and highly intelligent Sherlock into 21st century London and pairs him with a younger, more active Watson who was recently wounded in a battle in Afghanistan.
Cumberbatch felt that it was important to show traits of both autism and sociopathy in his character, as well as a strong penchant for perfectionism, as he wanted both conflicting and complementary traits that further distanced the character from ordinary people. Benedict Cumberbatch is, again, the exact opposite of his character and, because of this, can add dimension and enhance Easter eggs that lead fans in all directions.
Cumberbatch won a Critic’s Choice Award and an Emmy Award for his work, while he and the crew were nominated for a total of 40 awards during his tenure as Sherlock. Many fans claim that the show could only have been brought into the 21st century because of the talent and heart that Cumberbatch and Freeman brought to the table as friends and colleagues.
6. Dominic Cummings
Brexit (2019) is a mostly true story about Mr. Dominic Cummings, a political strategist in Great Britain who worked for years to convince people in the country to vote to leave the European Union. The story begins with the highly controversial introduction of Brexit in 2015 and continues all the way through to the consequences of the vote as they stood in 2019.
No matter what side of the argument you fall on, the character is one that many actors would shy away from. Not Benedict Cumberbatch, however, even though he does admit that he falls on the other side of the argument. He wanted to ensure that the movie would be as factual and judicious as possible, so that nobody on either side of the argument feel alienated.
Cumberbatch viewed his character as a human being who is both alike and different from himself. He found qualities and fears in Mr. Cummings that he could understand and relate to, such as the danger of extremism, the importance of individual liberties, and the growing threat of social inequality. Taking a role from the other side of the political spectrum allowed him to fully embrace both sides of the arguments, personally explore bipartisan ideals, and further cement his social values.
Brexit was nominated for the Gold Derby TV Award for the TV Movie Of the Decade. While Benedict himself was not nominated for an individual award, he carried the movie and helped ensure its accuracy to promote understanding of the issue at hand.
7. Patrick Melrose
Patrick Melrose in Patrick Melrose (2018) is a character who highlights the affluence of the British upper class and the trauma that all of us can suffer, no matter our bank accounts. Cumberbatch plays a rich man who is forced to deal with the trauma he experienced over the past 50 years of his life, both as an abused child in France and through the effects of the drug abuse he experienced as a young adult in New York.
Young Patrick was sexually abused by his father and heavily neglected by his mother. His story is about his attempt to reconcile his past and move past the addictions that still haunt him. The problem with the past, however, is that it cannot be changed—only seen from a different lens. When it comes to the horrible abuse that Patrick suffered at the hands of his parents, moving beyond seems almost impossible, even for someone with access to the best doctors and all the money in the world.
Cumberbatch won a BAFTA for Best Actor in 2019 for this role, and the show was praised specifically for his heartfelt and realistic portrayal of an abused child living within the mind of a lost adult. This limited series also has a 90% score on Rotten Tomatoes, which is no easy feat for a miniseries.
Whether he plays a hero, like Turing, an evil, conniving chocolate heir, or a damaged soul trying to do good like Melrose, Benedict Cumberbatch is the ultimate artist. He approaches each role as if it were the most important in his career and chooses his characters based on interest, not on popularity. His natural sensitivity and predilection towards more cerebral characters continue to propel his career, in addition to making him a pleasure to watch.