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How HBO’s ‘Brexit’ Explains Britain’s Political Chaos — And Ours

Dramatic retelling of the landmark 2016 vote posits that a shadowy consultant, an angry populace and misleading data are all it takes to throw a country into disarray

Benedict Cumberbatch in 'Brexit.'

Benedict Cumberbatch in 'Brexit.'

Nick Wall/HBO

Brexit, the HBO docudrama premiering tomorrow about Britain’s 2016 vote to leave the European Union, arrives at an unexpectedly timely moment. Three years ago, most of the world was shocked when a slim margin of the country’s population, angry over trade deals and immigration, edged out those wanting to maintain the status quo of economic partnership with their neighbors. In the last few days, the tumult that decision unlocked has spiked: British Parliament rejected Prime Minister Theresa May’s muddled plan for a March exit, May barely survived a no-confidence vote and talks about how to proceed have since broken down. Now, Brexit, the first film made about the event, swoops in to remind us how the country got to this messy point in the first place.

An occasionally droll but largely grim play-by-play of the movement, Brexit makes for a more-compelling-than-you’d-expect account of how a small group of politically savvy insurgents and conservatives convinced just enough of their fellow citizens to potentially screw up their own economy. To the credit of British playwright James Graham, who wrote Brexit, the movie finds a novel way into the story. The Leave movement, as it was called, came with its share of caricature-ready figures: former London mayor Boris Johnson, whose gust-swept white-blond mop made him resemble Owen Wilson belatedly going “punk,” and Nigel Farage, head of the right-wing UK Independence Party, who always looked like he’d just emerged, happily, from a pub.

Both are portrayed in the film, and Paul Ryan’s Farage, perennially red-faced and stuffed into vests, is particularly cartoonish. But Graham instead zeroes in on a more shadowy figure, political strategist Dominic Cummings, the geeky, bike-riding, ruthlessly analytical director of the Leave campaign. As played by Benedict Cumberbatch, Cummings often works out of a supply closet and has zero bedside-manner skills, and he has the outsider look to match: With his balding pate and often blank look, Cumberbatch plays Cummings as an extraterrestrial on the spectrum.

But as the movie depicts in one of its very Hollywood a-ha! moments, it was Cummings who devised the “Take Back Control” slogan that helped pinpoint the subtly racist and xenophobic appeal of the Leave movement. As he tells his taken-aback Leave cohorts in the film, “Lesson 1: Kill conventional wisdom.” He’s Steve Bannon as a scrawnier, more socially awkward dweeb.

Smartly, Brexit doesn’t get too wonky over its just-enough 97 minutes. Graham sums up the economic and emotional debates over the E.U. by circling back to a fictional focus group that is drawn, little by little with each meeting, to the Leave side. Those scenes are some of the movie’s stagiest (yes, a working-class British woman breaks down when talking about her plight) but also its most poignant. In between, he illustrates how Cummings and his team latched onto analytics to reach ignored voting blocks, tapped into populism and economic anxiety, and gladly utilized fake news (for instance, spreading lies that millions of Turkish citizens would soon be streaming into Britain).

The movie sags when it attempts to humanize Cummings by inserting a subplot about complications with his wife’s pregnancy. But it re-energizes once the Remain group, who are advocating for Britain to stay in the E.U., gradually realizes it may lose the fight and that they underestimated the rage in their own country. Played by Rory Kinnear in an array of white Oxford shirts and ties that contrast with Cummings’ proletariat yellow biker vest, Remain leader Craig Oliver becomes the increasingly horrified face of dismay. Once the vote happens, he tells a colleague that they missed the “drip-drip-drip of fear and hate without anyone willing to counter it.”

In what seems like a too-convenient scene, Cummings and Oliver meet on the British subway after the vote and wind up sharing pints at a pub. With ratcheting hostility, they debate the pros and cons of what the Leave movement has unleashed in the country — and whether it has dismantled Britain for good and trashed the role that expertise and experience play in good governance. Watching and listening to them, you’d almost think you were observing Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump — or their surrogates — having the same debate in 2016, just before the election.

Which, surely, is the point. Brexit wants you to see parallels between the U.K. and the U.S., and it isn’t optimistic about our fates. The movie ends with a fictional jump to 2020, where Cummings is being grilled by a government agency about the use of personal data during the Leave campaign. Looking defeated, he admits that ever since the vote, the Brexit plan has “all gone crap … the vision wasn’t flawed. It’s people that are flawed. We’re drifting without vision, without purpose.” Tell it to Theresa May — and, if he cares to hear it, her counterpart in the U.S.

Brexit premieres Saturday, January 19, at 9 p.m. ET.

 

 

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