'To the Ends of the Earth' Is a Metaphor for Benedict Cumberbatch's Career

The timeless adventure of Edmund Talbot, who undertakes a journey from England to Australia to find a new life is also part of the career adventure of the Benedict Cumberbatch.

To the Ends of the Earth

Distributor: Timeless Media Group
Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Sam Neill, Jared Harris, Victoria Hamilton, Jamie Sives
Network: PBS
US DVD Release date: 2014-11-04

In 2005, the BBC (and later PBS) broadcast a three-part, four-and-a-half-hour adaptation of William Golding’s To the Ends of the Earth. Set in 1812 during the last months of the war between Britain and France, the story encapsulates life on board an aging warship as a microcosm of English society, with its sharp-clawed class distinctions lurking beneath a veneer of civility. Following the organization of Golding’s book series, the miniseries dramatized each volume as a separate part: Rites of Passage, Close Quarters, and Fire Down Below. These titles refer to events within the ship during its long voyage from England to Australia but also document the monumental changes within the story’s narrator, Edmund Talbot (Benedict Cumberbatch), as he travels far from his aristocratic home to take up a position within the Governor’s office in Sydney. Talbot’s godfather secured him this employment and presented him with a journal. Thus, many scenes depict the young man dutifully recording his impressions of the long sea voyage -- including his and others’ seasickness, the ailments of the leaky ship, less-than-subtle class skirmishes, and threat of attack by the French -- but also detail Edmund’s increasing maturing resulting from on-board experiences and interactions with the many colorful personalities among the officers, crew, and passengers.

At the top of the ship’s pecking order is Captain Anderson (Jared Harris), a petty man who fawns over Talbot once he understands that the young man is the godson of a Lord very familiar with the navy and its officers. Young Talbot quickly learns that his social position means he can influence the Captain, who cannot treat an aristocrat with the same disdain he metes out to other passengers or his crew. Just when Edmund believes he has the upper hand, the Captain finds a not-so-subtle way to ensure him he does not. Anderson, for example, does not want a parson aboard his ship and refuses to allow the Reverend Colley (Daniel Evans) to hold a Sunday service. Talbot uses his social power to provide a meeting place for the loudly singing worshipers, only for the Captain to turn the ship violently enough to throw the congregation off their feet.

The ongoing rivalry between Anderson and Talbot often leads to collateral damage among passengers of lower classes, such as bullied Parson Colley and First Lieutenant Charles Summers (Jamie Sives), the latter who received that rare promotion from the ship’s lowly crew and not as part of an upper-class birthright. Whereas Talbot brusquely dismisses the opinions of blustery rabble-rouser Mr. Prettiman (Sam Neill), he later comes to value their lengthy discussions of literature and philosophy, even if doing so is considered “dangerous” to Talbot’s future political position in Australia. After all, as one crewman reminds Talbot, “not much goes unseen” on a vessel that offers little privacy and plenty of opportunities to observe and gossip.

In a BBC press release issued before the miniseries’ broadcast, Cumberbatch described the story as a “sort of rock and roll 1812 period drama about a young man’s gap year . . . filth, dirt, discovery, sex, drugs, dancing, love, spiritual awakenings and massive sweeping changes!” Each of the three parts includes plenty of each, sometimes graphically; the tightly framed images capture the claustrophobic atmosphere of the ship’s close quarters.

As the vessel crosses the equator, a crewman masked as King Neptune enacts a crossing ceremony before the assembled passengers and officers. Parson Colley suffers a parody of a “baptism” that nearly drowns him, an action that both entertains and horrifies the crowd. The bacchanalia continues below decks, as Talbot enacts his own “crossing ceremony” by having a lustful, almost animalistic sexual encounter with the ship’s blonde temptress, Zenobia (Paula Jennings). [A tidbit for Cumberbatch fans: This was the actor’s first on-screen sex scene.]

Talbot, however, is capable of gentilly falling in love. When two English ships meet in the night, their joining provides a rare social opportunity for the passengers and officers. The resulting dinner and ball leads to a one-night romance that steers Talbot’s life in a new direction. He becomes besotted with the soft-spoken protégée of Lady Somerset, Marion Chumley (Joanna Page) and, despite their separation when their respective journeys take them to far-distant destinations, he longs for a happy reunion.

Throughout the course of the miniseries, Cumberbatch presents an in-depth portrayal of Talbot’s “gap year” -- dancing at a formal ball, drunkenly weaving to his cabin after a stress-induced bender, suffering a concussion, admiring the stars on deck during a calm sea, and, most important and pervasive in this miniseries, learning how best to use the authority granted him because of his aristocratic background.

From the vantage point of nearly a decade’s hindsight, and in light of Cumberbatch’s current international celebrity and film and television stardom, To the Ends of the Earth can also serve as a metaphor for the massive changes in this actor’s life in the years since the miniseries’ original broadcast. Like Talbot at the start of his incredible adventure, Cumberbatch may have anticipated future success but had no idea of the immense career journey on which he had embarked. Fresh from a 2004 BAFTA nomination as Best Actor for portraying Stephen Hawking in the BBC’s television movie Hawking, Cumberbatch already was highly respected for his television and theater work by the time he starred in To the Ends of the Earth, but he had done little on film. In 2014, while the Timeless Media Group/Shout! Factory is re-releasing the classic To the Ends of the Earth, Cumberbatch has been making the rounds of U.S. talk shows (including The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon; Good Morning, America; The Daily Show; Charlie Rose; Live with Kelly and Michael) to promote The Imitation Game, a film for which many critics believe he may receive an Oscar nomination.

Merely because Cumberbatch stars in To the Ends of the Earth may be reason enough for many viewers to see this miniseries again or for the first time. It showcases many of the actor’s strengths: a fully developed character given a variety of emotional and physical tasks that indicate the actor’s range, nuances that illustrate the thought (and research) behind Cumberbatch’s actorly choices, and a starring role showing he can carry a production. During the four-month shoot in South Africa, Cumberbatch was on set every day. As director David Atwater explained, Cumberbatch was cast because he is a “good actor, someone young enough to be believable as aristocratic, an almost slightly dislikeable character who is an adolescent in terms of his views of the world, his upbringing . . . someone who could hold the screen for four and a half hours, in every scene.” To the Ends of the Earth reminds audiences that Cumberbatch is a talented actor, not merely a currently hot celebrity.

In an early journal entry (narrated by Cumberbatch), Talbot thanks his godfather for such a potentially life-changing employment opportunity: “You have set my foot on the ladder, and however high I climb -- I must warn your lordship that my ambition is boundless -- I shall never forget whose kindly hand first helped me upwards.” Such a sentiment might have been expressed by Cumberbatch, whose early television successes, especially in period dramas, often came through the BBC via television movies with bit roles in miniseries like Fields of Gold or Tipping the Velvet (both in 2002), which later led to starring roles in movies such as Hawking. In 2006, Cumberbatch received the Monte Carlo TV Festival’s award for Best Performance by an Actor for his role as Edmund Talbot. The more recent success of Sherlock has cemented the actor’s professional affiliation with the British broadcaster.

To the Ends of the Earth, however, is more than a star vehicle for Cumberbatch. It benefits from a stellar cast, including Jared Harris and Sam Neill, and a sweeping story set at sea. The miniseries earned six BAFTA nominations, including Best Drama Serial. It represents the type of period productions for which the BBC became famous in the U.S. on PBS. The DVD may lack extras, but the three parts tell a remarkable tale. Although the characters seldom enjoy smooth sailing, their stories are intriguing and well acted, and audiences should enjoy a virtual vacation traveling with Edmund Talbot To the Ends of the Earth.

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