Cumberbatchweb – Third Star Review

By Naomi Roper – 20 May 2011

James (Benedict Cumberbatch) is 29 and terminally ill with cancer. After saying goodbye to his parents and sister he embarks upon a road trip with his friends – protective Davy (Tom Burke), free spirited Bill (Adam Robertson) and distant Miles (JJ Feild) to see his favourite place on Earth – Barafundle Bay.

Naturally it doesn’t take long before things start to go badly wrong as the foursome have to deal with a pub brawl, missing possessions, the inclement weather, the unpredictability of the ramshackle cart they’ve created to help transport James and brutal home truths from James himself, who is determined to use the trip to try and get his friends to see that they are all under achieving in their lives.

Third Star is an engaging, beautiful looking movie featuring some truly impressive acting from its cast of British Bright Young Things – Benedict Cumberbatch and JJ Feild in particular are superb. The chemistry between the foursome rings true and the comedy is gentle and affectionate.

Visually the movie is stunning. The cinematography by Carlos Catalan is wonderful with the movie employing a beautiful palette of rich greens (all the foliage the cast have to trek through), vivid orange sunsets and the glistening blue of the sea. Never has a beach been made to look so mystical and so inviting. The movie certainly does justice to the beautiful Pembrokeshire scenery.

Hattie Dalton, in her feature film directorial debut, is an assured hand behind the camera. She directs the blokey comradeship between the foursome with ease and is equally adept when the film becomes much more solemn. There are some lovely lyrical,  surreal flashes throughout that lend the film a dreamy quality – a white feather drifting in the breeze, a nasty local boy decked out in angel wings, an impromtu firework display.

The acting is superb. Benedict Cumberbatch in the potentially thankless role of James gives a wonderful performance that is, at times, incredibly difficult to watch. Rather bravely he never tries to gain the audience’s sympathies as James.  High on morphine and bitterly, furiously angry at the hand he has been dealt, James is a prickly, arrogant, frequently highly unlikeable character who displays flashes of real cruelty dispensing unwanted home truths and hurting those who care deeply for him. It’s hard to watch him mock Davy’s desire to be needed and useful or thoughtlessly decimate Bill’s entire lifestyle with his words. The character’s harsh edges keep sentimentality brutally at bay and yet while Cumberbatch never entreats the sympathy of the audience you nonetheless feel for James every step of the way. It would be a hard heart indeed that did not break, just a tiny bit, at the look of hurt and fear on Cumberbatch’s face when Miles speaks of his views on the afterlife or wince at Bill’s thoughtless assertion as to how they will “live on through their children”. Cumberbatch is also distressingly convincing as a man suffering from a terminal illness – the haunted look of pain in his eyes is hard to take. It’s not all doom and gloom though  as he wisely leavens his performance with some uplifting moments – the look of joy on his face as James becomes embroiled in the pub brawl, the expression of childish wonder as he watches an impromptu firework display, his increasing amusement as the foursome start to shed their belongings. It’s a lovely performance in a very difficult role.

Equally superb is JJ Feild who gives a beautifully understated performance as Miles. His character is the most distant of the four (and therefore in many ways he has the hardest task of all four actors) and you don’t really “get” him until the final third of the film. Feild does an immense amount with very little – there are no grandiose speeches or “big” moments and yet he delivers a raw, powerful performance. His expression at the end of the film will stay with me for a very long time – I feel shaken just thinking about it. I’ve never really seen him in anything but small supporting roles but on the basis of his work here I will definitely be seeking his work out in the future.

Adam Robertson is entertainingly daffy as Bill and Tom Burke (magnificent in last year’s Design for Living at the Old Vic) gives a warm and sweet performance as the incredibly loyal Davy. There are also entertainingly quirky cameos from Karl Johnson (De Lacey in the recent production of Frankenstein at the NT which Cumberbatch co-headlined with Jonny Lee Miller) and Hugh Bonneville who makes the very most of his limited screentime.

Be warned though this is a surprisingly powerful film. I was expecting to be a blubbing mess at the end (I cry at adverts) and actually I wasn’t – not because I have a lump of coal where my heart should be (or so I keep telling people) but because the film hits on a harder level than that. This isn’t a glossy,  disease of the week melodrama where grandiose speeches, soft lighting and a stirring soundtrack conspire to wring tears from you. Third Star is at times really quite genuinely upsetting, especially if the film has any sort of personal resonance for you. There were three moments (James screaming in pain, Cumberbatch’s face when his friends turn down a particular request and JJ Feild’s face at the end of the film) which hit me so hard that it’s difficult thinking of them now. The ending of the film is abrupt, brutally unsentimental and desperately poignant. At the screening I was at the entire audience sat in complete and total silence afterwards until the end of the credits, any noise would have been intrusive and most unwelcome – everyone needed that time to compose themselves. Third Star has some beautiful moments of levity but it will leave you feeling really quite shaken – I can’t think of the last time a film made me “feel” so strongly.

Third Star is a visually stunning movie featuring raw, powerful performances from its cast – Cumberbatch and Feild especially.