The announcement of the film “Brexit” — which aired in the U.K. on Channel 4 before its HBO bow on Jan. 19 — engendered serious criticism from the British, and understandably so. The film, which looks at recent history in the manner HBO productions like “Game Change” and “Recount” had done, takes on a story whose very fundamentals are still in doubt. For those who believe the Brexit vote, a plebiscite that resulted in the U.K.’s protracted quitting of the European Union, turned out the way it did because of nefarious or illegal tactics, “Brexit” covers material that’s too painful, and too unsettled, to handle.
But the protest didn’t account for the fact that the film, indeed, addresses various potential causes, so much so that it feels at times more like a polemic against the forces that led to upheaval than like a fiction film. In its multifarious willingness to use many approaches to a single problem of recent history, it’s reminiscent of the recent film work of “Vice” director Adam McKay. “In a different branch of history,” Benedict Cumberbatch tells the camera, “I was never here, some of you voted differently, and Brexit never happened. But I was, and it did. Everyone knows who won. But not everyone knows how.” It’s a lofty promise, both in its substance (that the film will show how recent history was made) and in its style (that the film will be both definitive and strikingly intimate). On both counts, the film falls short.
The star of the show here is the real-life political strategist Dominic Cummings — inasmuch as a figure quite so recessive can really be considered a star. As played by a typically strong Cumberbatch, Cummings recedes from the frame; surrounded by political figures noted for their windiness, his success lies in his ability to listen. At one point, that ability is literalized by Cumberbatch placing his ear to the street, but more often it’s during focus-grouping in bars. Cumberbatch has an insinuating, almost pleasant way of asking random citizens toxically barbed questions, as with his queries about how immigration has changed the British national character: “Is it the type of people they’re bringing over? What’s too many for you?” He eventually lands upon a narrative that will win the day: That by receding from the world stage, Britons will be better able to “take control” of their destinies.
These scenes work as well as they can before they start to feel like a rehash of conversations had on both sides of the Atlantic since the world shifted on its axis with Brexit and then Trump. By the time a literal focus-group scene explodes into recriminations between two sides of the Brexit fight, the point — that politicians on the right have exploited division for their own ends — has been made, and made effectively enough for further embellishment to seem beyond the point.
Besides, the crux of the film’s argument, and of the Cumberbatch character — who, in the parlance of our time, heard things that the liberal establishment could not — runs up against “Brexit’s” broad-minded willingness to throw just about every theory at the screen. The wealthy conservative donor Robert Mercer and the controversial data-mining firm Cambridge Analytica (both players in Brexit as well as in the election of Donald Trump) make glancing appearances in the film but are huge players in the film-ending titles narrating what happened and what it all meant. If, indeed, the story of “Brexit” is one of interference by foreign money and by dangerous, bleeding-edge social-media tactics, then why does Cumberbatch’s character’s ability to suss out a national narrative matter at all? “Brexit’s” problem isn’t that it is too flip about recent history. It’s that it takes every possible branch of history seriously, and doesn’t do the work of discerning which ones matter more.
“Brexit.” Jan. 19.
Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Rory Kinnear, Richard Goulding, Paul Ryan, Lee Boardman, Oliver Maltman.
Executive Producers: James Graham, Juliette Howell, and Tessa Ross.