TORONTO — In The Fifth Estate, Benedict Cumberbatch offers a multifaceted, subtle performance as self-proclaimed "lightning rod" and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, whose revolutionary work revealed corporate and national secrets.
What the movie — which is based, in part, on the memoir by former WikiLeaks collaborator Daniel Domscheit-Berg — doesn't address, save for a title card at the end, is the most recent drama in the twisted Assange saga: the rape case in Sweden that has kept him holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London since June 2012.
"It's outside the actual time frame of the story, the beginning, middle, and end of his relationship with Daniel Domscheit-Berg, who really had no connection to that story," The Fifth Estate director, Oscar winner Bill Condon, explained to BuzzFeed at the Toronto International Film Festival, where the film made its debut. "Also, it's one of those things where if you put it front and center, sadly, it's all a lot of people know about him. So it feels like it would just be a great, big distraction."
That said, Condon didn't shy away from discussing the allegations, or his belief that Assange — who has claimed that the allegations are part of a U.S.-driven conspiracy to have him extradited and face trial for facilitating the largest confidential document leak in American history — is not as innocent as he insists.
"I think it's pretty clear. I don't think there's a gray area about that," Condon said. "He was involved in these things with these two women, and as you know, Swedish sex laws are much more progressive, so it was about having unprotected sex with partners who didn't want to have unprotected sex. Let's not talk about different forms of rape, but that is part of the description of rape there that would not necessarily apply certainly in America. But, it did happen.
"The fact is that this is part of what's not so admirable about Julian, because he isn't always truthful and he can manipulate people," Condon continued. "I think most people believe that it was a government hit in some way, that he was set up. And it's easy to believe that, because the timing was incredibly convenient, and it did sort of bring him down. But the fact is, these were two women who had this experience who filed a complaint."
Assange publicly condemned The Fifth Estate as anti-WikiLeaks propaganda before cameras began rolling, and he was allegedly working in private to try to put a stop to the production. He denied Cumberbatch a meeting at the Ecuadorian Embassy, but as the actor alluded earlier this year, there was communication between the real Assange and his big-screen doppelgänger.
"It happened during rehearsal and then into the beginning of production," Condon said, hinting that the contact was facilitated by mutual friends. "I really admired Benedict for being able to navigate it so gracefully, because here's what was happening: Benedict was channeling Assange — he's not Daniel Day-Lewis, and he we didn't have to talk to him as Julian or anything like that, but he's a great immersive actor and he was becoming Assange — and at the same time, he was in an email correspondence where Julian's sole message and sole intent was, Please, please, please drop out of this movie. Do not do this movie."
Though Cumberbatch clearly didn't heed Assange's advice, the director said the pleas in some ways helped the star shape his performance.
"Can you imagine the person you're becoming, and someone inside of your head — because it's his head — is saying, Please don't do this? I don't know another actor who has been in this situation... I think it helped him really feel the sense that Julian feels a lot, which is that he's under siege in some way, and he desperately has to be in control."
Though The Fifth Estate does its best to avoid significant judgment of its protagonist, given the source material and Assange's ego, it's impossible to paint him as a perfect moral leader and selfless martyr of full mental clarity, even if his political arguments are quite compelling, and often correct. Despite his loyalty-invoking charms, Assange errs toward the peevish and impatient with skeptics and even his own supporters.
In a bit of armchair psychology — backed by Assange's own recollections from various articles and a memoir by Andrew O'Hanagan — The Fifth Estate does address his tumultuous childhood in Australia. Assange's time spent with a stepfather from a cult, and the continuous upheaval and uncertainty of his formative years, shaped both his world outlook — "full transparency for corporations and institutions" — and his own secretive personal life. That isolation was crucial in achieving accomplishments as outsized as Assange's were, Condon posited.
"I do think you have to have some kind of sense of separation from society," the director said. "I think for him, and again you don't want to be reductive, but somebody like that who grew up running away from a cult, never normalized, never stayed in school for any period of time, always on the run, being taught for good reason to distrust powerful institutions like government because they'd be found through government sources and friends... So it's only somebody like that who can extract themselves from normal human interaction, who can kind of have the vision to look at this and take it on. But it also means, at its darker moments, it does turn into a certain kind of paranoia."
Update: This post has been updated to reflect the fact that under Swedish law, Assange would first have to be extradited to the country and interviewed in order to be formally charged. (9/6/13)