'Brexit': TV Review

Quick, good and relevant.
1/19/2019

The HBO film starring Benedict Cumberbatch is timely and intriguing, illuminating a British political quandary while revealing strong parallels to what's going on in America.

Let's get the obvious bits about the HBO movie Brexit out of the way immediately: It's too early to fully portray the polarizing referendum in the United Kingdom about leaving the European Union, because that story is ongoing — like, literally, as of this minute.

So at its best, Brexit is a snapshot of what (and who) got a divided country to the point where it made an unprecedented decision and may have been under the influence of nefarious individuals in the background influencing the whole thing, which of course has enormous parallels to our situation in the United States.

Brexit is also too vastly complex and, in many ways, too vastly British, to be entirely understood by Americans, even the ones who are following Brexit news on the daily. And finally, roughly an hour and a half is not much time to do justice to the complicated story; you'd probably need at least a six-hour miniseries.

OK, exhale. All of that is true. But so is this: Brexit is briskly entertaining, driven by a different kind of lead performance from Benedict Cumberbatch — he's less leading man (he's balding and pasty here) and more leading brain, which of course he also excels at. Plus, in assembling this quick-paced story-on-the-go, playwright James Graham (the Laurence Olivier Award winner for Labour of Love) and director Toby Haynes (Black Mirror) have a complete grasp of the bigger story and an even tighter grasp on how to tell that through Cumberbatch's character: an eccentric political consultant named Dominic Cummings, who pulled the strings behind the scene in ways that disparate factions who wanted the U.K. to get out of its Euro-tangles for ages had been unable to ever do. In that sense, Brexit is built for a speedy story.

For American audiences, Brexit (shortened from Brexit: The Uncivil War as it appeared on Channel 4 in England) will be something viewed at a remove, but with recognition of undeniable parallels. The final tally happened before Trump was elected here, which gave people paying attention to the Brexit vote a chance to say, in essence, "What have our dumbass cousins done?!," only to suffer our own political shock not long after. The connecting lines here are, of course, immigration, nationalism, racism and, very important, the influence of Cambridge Analytica and its online "microtargeting" strategies, which involve one Stephen Bannon.

The short-circuiting of democracy and the coarsening of political discourse — including the realization that lies don't matter to people who will believe anything — will be chillingly familiar topics to Americans who read the paper every day. Again, the parallels are partly what keeps Brexit so intriguing even though it's a British story and Dominic Cummings an unfamiliar player to most on these shores.

Cumberbatch is very effective as a nerdy numbers cruncher and intuitive sociologist who targeted the right people with the right kind of slogans. Credit Graham's writing for making the key elements understandable even if some of the British political traditions and nuances might be lost on some American viewers. Graham and Cumberbatch make the main story as easy as it seems on the surface — a disgruntled bloc of voters, many of whom had given up voting entirely in previous elections, had their grievances (whether they were more emotional than based on actual fact) tapped into and then preyed upon. The process brought up currents of nationalism and racism that American audiences can recognize, even if the broader reaches of what it means to be in an economic union with multiple countries is a less familiar concept.

Haynes' direction effectively captures the frantic nature of the effort in a compressed time frame. It tells a snippet of a story. Yes, the running time is too short. Yes, the view comes from inside an ongoing story that lacks distance, which limits the potential for more seasoned, sophisticated analysis and perspective. But Graham believed in the importance of writing a movie about the here and now, and how it could still be relevant and revealing, even if unfinished. It is. For Americans, even if that story isn't our own, it's absolutely relatable and that makes it interesting.

Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Rory Kinnear, Craig Oliver, Richard Goulding, Paul Ryan, Lee Boardman, Oliver Maltman

Created and written by: James Graham

Directed by: Toby Haynes

Premieres Jan. 19, 9 p.m., HBO