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HBO’s ‘Brexit’ has Cumberbatch on its side, but not much else

“Everyone knows who won,” Benedict Cumberbatch says at the outset of “Brexit” (9 p.m. Saturday, HBO). “But not everyone knows how.”

Everyone in Britain, perhaps, which is still reeling from the chaos unleashed by the 2016 referendum.

Probably a majority of people in Europe, who are waiting to see how — and, after this week’s headlines, if — British leaders will agree on a path forward.

On the streets of quite a few American cities, though, you’d probably find nearly as many people who think Brexit is a delightful chocolate spread, a la Nutella, as opposed to the polarizing vote for Britain to “exit” the European Union.

Then again, “Brexit,” a co-production of HBO Films along with the United Kingdom’s Channel 4 and the BBC, isn’t really for American viewers.

At least I hope it isn’t.

If it is, it’s done a woeful job at helping us Yanks understand who most of these blokes are.

Cumberbatch stars as rogue political adviser Dominic Cummings, whose blunt style and general disdain for political niceties and politicians make him a controversial choice as the lead strategist behind the Vote Leave campaign.

Everyone else in the drama — with the possible exception of Boris Johnson (Richard Goulding), the cartoonish, mop-haired then mayor of London — flies by as part of a staggering progression of names and titles that will mean little to anyone but the staunchest of political wonks. It’s basically random faces, focus groups, jibber jabber and “Oh, hey! There’s Benedict Cumberbatch!”

His Cummings is a strange one. He writes on walls and doors and often retreats into a supply closet to think. As part of a series of job interviews, Cummings gives himself a pep talk — “Be polite, engaged, don’t tell them what you’re really thinking.” — before doing exactly the opposite. His detractors within the anti-EU movement deride him as “some geeky anarchist who wants to show off.”

Congrats. You’ve just described pretty much every misfit and odd duck — from Sherlock Holmes to Patrick Melrose and Julian Assange to Alan Turing — on the Cumberbatchian spectrum. Cummings even veers into Doctor Strange territory with this doozy: “We live in a multiverse of differing branches of histories.”

Directed by Toby Haynes, who oversaw Cumberbatch on the “Sherlock” episode “The Reichenbach Fall,” and scripted by political playwright James Graham, “Brexit” doesn’t uncover a treasure trove of information. Its characters aside from Cummings — especially the members of the hapless opposition — are paper thin.

But it does tick off the boxes showing, yet again, that an undercurrent of fear, hopelessness and xenophobia — if not outright racism — can lead to surprising returns at the ballot box.

“Show no mercy,” Cummings instructs his staff, telling them to hammer voters with “350 million pounds and Turkey.” As a campaign strategy, it seems less appealing than 350 million pounds of turkey. But it drives home the wholly unsubstantiated amount of money that his side claims Britain sends the EU each week — money they say could go to the National Health Service — as well as the potential expansion of the union to include a nation whose people tend to look less like “traditional” Brits than those of any existing member.

Then there’s the well-worn notion that, despite living in an age of more sources for news than ever before, the average citizen is atrociously uninformed. “Seventy million Turks coming over here, it’s just frightening,” a woman complains to Johnson while reading from his campaign flier, forcing him to concede, “Well, that is, uh, just the actual population of Turkey.” As one member of a talking-heads montage bluntly states, “The people of this country have had enough of experts.”


Cumberbatch is engaging as always, but there’s nothing in “Brexit” that’s half as clever as the titular cheery little moniker given to Britain’s exit that in no way hinted that ramifications could be felt years or even decades later.

The result is watchable enough. But it isn’t terribly Brentertaining or Brenlightening.

Contact Christopher Lawrence at clawrence @reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4567. Follow @life_onthecouch on Twitter.

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