Review: The Fifth Estate

Poster for 2013 biopic The Fifth Estate

Genre: Biopic
Certificate: 15
UK Release Date: 11th October 2013
Runtime: 128 minutes
Director: Bill Condon
Writer: Josh Singer
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Brühl, Alicia Vikander, David Thewlis, Peter Capaldi
Synopsis: The story of WikiLeaks and its journey from obscure website to the biggest, and most infamous, depository of confidential information in the history of the internet.

 

 

As far as pre-release publicity for a biopic goes, it’s difficult to go any bigger than the subject of the movie publicly denouncing it. But, given that the subject of the movie is one of the most polarising public figures in modern memory, The Fifth Estate was always going to split opinion. In the end, it does so via an intelligent, gripping and stunningly performed drama.

Daniel Berg (Daniel Brühl) is a computer whizz who is thrust into the centre of something huge when he meets Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch), the enigmatic founder of WikiLeaks. As the organisation grows in notoriety and receives a stack of diplomatic cables, Guardian journalist Nick Davies (David Thewlis) thinks its time for the website to become a credible bastion of journalism.

Critical reaction to The Fifth Estate has been interesting. Many critics love the film, but many also think it comes out a bit toothless. It’s true that Bill Condon, fresh from helming the Twilight finale, has constructed a film with no clear allegiance, but this is a necessity rather than a capitulation.

Julian Assange is a complex character that doesn’t fit into the binary constraints of “champion of liberty” or “threat to national security”. This complexity is reflected in Condon’s nuanced film and especially in Benedict Cumberbatch’s outstanding portrayal of a complicated man. More than the mannerisms and the accent, Cumberbatch’s performance understands the constant conflicts within Assange and his battle to preserve his ideals of free, uncensored information sharing.

Cumberbatch is surrounded by an equally strong Daniel Brühl and a convincingly jaded David Thewlis. Peter Capaldi gets little to do as beleagured Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger, but this is necessary to make room for the enormity of Assange and Cumberbatch.

More than any other film since The Social Network, The Fifth Estate has a real talent for making a group of people sitting around computers into a gripping thriller. The visualisation technique of Berg, Assange and co working “in the cloud” is stunningly realised and allows Condon to showcase his directorial flair.

The script is an interesting mixed bag. Where other tech-orientated films may shy away from some of the jargon, The Fifth Estate dives straight in with its talk of technical practices and hacking. Some of the dialogue is a little bit exposition-heavy – especially when Thewlis is forced to explain the title – but this matters little in the general scheme of things.

The climax of The Fifth Estate suffers hugely because the events are still ongoing. It feels like the brakes have been slammed on, rather than there being a natural conclusion. For its entire runtime, the film keeps its story pelting forward, only to stop just as it needs to be tying things up.

 

Pop or Poop?

Rating: Pop!

Taking on such a huge, current public figure was always going to be a tough ask. But The Fifth Estate is a stunning attempt, benefiting from a near-perfect performance from Benedict Cumberbatch and similar strength from this year’s breakout star Daniel Brühl.

Some of the dialogue is a little clunky and the ending weak, but Condon’s directorial flair shines through and this turns out to be a cracking techno-thriller.

 

Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.

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