It’s always interesting to see what Marvel stars do in-between saving the world. Tom Holland showed his dark side in Cherry; Brie Larson made legal drama Just mercy; and Chris Hemsworth mixed more action with ads for the Dubai Expo. Before he sends us to The Multiverse as Doctor Strange, Benedict Cumberbatch appears to be making an assault on awards season with two prestige dramas, the first of which is The Power of The Dog.
Set in Montana in 1925, he plays Phil Burbank, an aggressive and boorish man who runs a ranch with his mild-mannered brother George (Jesse Plemons), whose new wife Rose (Kirsten Dunst) he’s openly hostile towards.
Filmed in her native New Zealand, it’s director Jane Campion’s first film since 2009’s Bright Star. Fans will find it has been worth the wait, with the Oscar winner offering a gorgeous, thoughtful film that allows you to discover hidden layers with each scene. There’s no safety net for the audience as she puts the camera in the centre of the awkward situations, creating agonising moments such as a dinner party gone wrong, and a musical duet between Phil and Rose that feels like a shootout. The tension is offset somewhat by the landscapes, giving this mid-budgeted award film the scale of something much grander.
The main attraction is Cumberbatch, who’s never been better than he is as Phil. It’s true that he has help – Campion’s script is magnificent, and there is a lot more room to grandstand when playing an absolute bastard.
But there’s no scenery-chewing here. Phil is a snarling, egotistical sociopath who survives on intimidation and seems to delight in the misery of others. He’s toxic masculinity poured into dirty ranch clothes, reminiscent of Denzel Washington in Fences in that you can’t bear to watch him, but you can’t look away.
Dunst and Cumberbatch reportedly didn’t speak on set in order to stay in character, and that animosity is abundantly clear on-screen. As Rose, Dunst portrays someone emotionally beaten down by cruelty, often unable to comprehend the situation she finds herself in. There’s rage beneath that helplessness, and also tenderness when she shares scenes with off-screen husband Plemons. While Cumberbatch steals a lot of the big moments, her performance is typical of an actor who has quietly built her reputation in independent films since leaving the world of blockbusters 15 years ago.
Always excellent as an everyman, Plemons has a difficult task in establishing himself without treading on the toes of other cast members. He manages to convey one of the key themes of the piece when George mumbles to Rose “it’s nice not to be alone”. Loneliness plays as big a part in the story as machismo, with even Phil revealing a personal longing before the journey is done.
The Power Of The Dog is a tough watch at times. It may not appeal to the casual streamer who stumbles across it, but those who like a bit of tension in their dramas will be mesmerised.