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Television Review

HBO’s ‘Brexit’ is a tale for both sides of the pond

Benedict Cumberbatch stars in the new HBO movie, “Brexit.”
Benedict Cumberbatch stars in the new HBO movie, “Brexit.”Nick Wall/HBO

If you’re not dazed by the daily — make that hourly — “breaking news” in this nation, you may have room for the tsuris of another, as portrayed in HBO’s “Brexit.” Perhaps you’re looking to feel better about our own trials by watching the Brits’ unfold? Or perhaps you’d like to compare their nightmare to ours, to see whose seems darker and more dystopian.

“Brexit,” which premieres Saturday at 9 p.m., takes on the data mechanics behind Britain’s 2016 referendum to leave the European Union. It’s a brisk, superficial, but smart film that essentially reminds us — repeatedly — of the potential outcomes in all the information we willingly provide about ourselves online. The more we share on social media and the less we know where online information is coming from, the more vulnerable we are to toxic manipulations.


Benedict Cumberbatch stars as Vote Leave’s campaign director, Dominic Cummings, a socially awkward whiz who uses his mastery of data science to help the ultimately successful Leave campaign unlock voters’ emotional needs. Letting the data lead him, he finds the weak spot — the anger or anxiety — in a group of people, then addresses it directly in targeted social media. A number of scenes chronicle how Cummings developed the slogan that cut directly to many voters’ fears and desires about the European Union: “Take Back Control.”

The real Brexit drama is far from over, of course; this week, it stirred more panic and dread as Parliament overwhelmingly rejected Theresa May’s European Union divorce plan. Wisely, “Brexit” doesn’t pretend to be the overall story of the referendum and its aftermath; writer James Graham and director Toby Haynes keep their focus tight, looking solely at the campaign itself and how a few powerful individuals had their way with it. The plot is driven more by issues of voter demographics, the data collected by Cambridge Analytica, and the triumph of Cummings than it is by the nationalism, immigration worries, and racism that may have fueled the Brexit vote.


The film aired in Britain last week, where it predictably created a stir. Brexit is an incendiary topic, much as President Trump is in this country, and anything about it is bound to divide the public. When the movie aired across the pond, it had the subtitle “The Uncivil War,” a phrase that could easily be applied to us, here, now. In one focus group scene in the movie, the group members get into a screaming fight that recalls our own bitter face-offs of the past three years. Those Americans who watch “Brexit” will inevitably make the connections, and perhaps appreciate the movie most of all for them.

Cumberbatch is perfect as the balding, super-focused man who masterminded the campaign. He is, as usual, hard not to watch, even when he is playing someone who doesn’t much like to be watched. It’s remarkable how he can make even his most peculiar and interior characters electric. His Cummings is passionately unwilling to follow conventional wisdom on anything. He dislikes collaboration, and he has little tolerance for those who’ve been pushing unsuccessfully for Brexit for years. He knows that he’s the way of the future, that he has far more effective instruments in his toolbox.


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


On: HBO, Saturday at 9 p.m.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Matthew