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The Undeclared War review: a cybersecurity thriller that never quite clicks

For a show about cutting-edge cyber warfare, there is something charmingly low-rent about The Undeclared War. The new British espionage thriller from writer-director Peter Kosminsky doesn’t look or feel like so many of the ultra-serious, prestige TV productions that have become all too common nowadays. Instead, the series’ minimalistic, natural cinematography makes it look more like an early 2000s TV miniseries, complete with the kind of title cards and accompanying typewriter sound effects that would be more at home in an episode of NCIS than a series starring the likes of Simon Pegg and Mark Rylance.

The Peacock show’s low-budget aesthetic may turn off some viewers, as will its decision to visualize many of its hacking sequences by diving straight into certain characters’ problem-solving minds. Those sequences, like many things in The Undeclared War, range from enthralling to ridiculous, but the series’ willingness to commit fully to all of its choices is one of its most endearing qualities. Not everything in The Undeclared War works, but it’s a testament to the work done by everyone involved in it that the series feels so passionately made from top to bottom.

Simon Pegg and Alex Jennings stand in an office together in The Undeclared War.
Playground Entertainment/Peacock

Set in 2024, The Undeclared War follows a team of security analysts and hackers who are tasked with protecting the United Kingdom from cyber attacks. Their skills are quickly put to the test in the series’ premiere when a mysterious malware attack disables part of the U.K.’s economic infrastructure. To make matters worse, as the show’s central cybersecurity team does its best to minimize the attack’s damage in the weeks leading up to an important general election, a college intern named Saara Parvan (played by newcomer Hannah Khalique-Brown) begins to suspect that there may be more attacks heading Britain’s way.

Over the course of its six episodes, The Undeclared War follows Saara as she attempts to get ahead of the U.K.’s mysterious attackers before they can throw the entire nation into chaos. Along the way, Saara catches the attention of both her GCHQ boss, Danny Patrick (Pegg, not too far from his Mission: Impossible exploits), and an assertive NSA agent from the United States named Kathy (Maisie Richardson-Sellers). In a strange twist of fate, Saara also finds herself pursuing a friendship with John Yeabsley (Rylance), an older GCHQ employee who longs for the days when the world of espionage felt more handmade and tactile.

By rooting The Undeclared War so firmly in Saara’s outsider perspective, Kosminsky and co. are able to gradually but efficiently submerge viewers in the series’ world of cybersecurity. It doesn’t take long, though, for some of the show’s older characters — namely, Pegg’s Danny, Rylance’s John, and Alex Jennings’ David Neal — to emerge as more compelling and commanding figures than Saara. Despite that, The Undeclared War frequently prioritizes Saara’s personal journey over its other storylines.

Hannah Khalique-Brown kneels in a grass field in The Undeclared War.
Playground Entertainment/Peacock

In its second half, the series often turns its attention to Saara’s personal relationships, including a superfluous love triangle that begins to grow between herself, her activist boyfriend, James (Edward Holcroft), and Richardson-Sellers’ Kathy. By doing so, The Undeclared War ultimately fails to strike the right balance between melodrama and espionage.

The series’ unyielding focus on Saara’s romantic troubles is particularly baffling considering how genuinely compelling The Undeclared War’s cybersecurity sequences are. Kosminsky constructs many of the series’ GCHQ scenes out of long, handheld camera takes, which follow the organization’s workers through various rooms and halls as they race to try to get on top of the attacks that are being launched against them. These sequences, as well as many of the show’s hacking scenes, are thrillingly executed, and they feel propulsive in a way that so many of The Undeclared War’s weaker sections do not.

Unfortunately, the show’s attempts to weave its flatly drawn melodramatic subplots into its tightly wound, overarching espionage story are the source of The Undeclared War’s biggest problems. At times, the series feels as thrilling and involving as anything you’ll likely see on TV this year. However, there are other instances when The Undeclared War feels no more special or well-realized than a daytime TV soap opera.

Mark Rylance stands near a window in The Undeclared War.
Playground Entertainment/Peacock

The show’s narrative shortcomings, thankfully, do not impact the performances given by its cast members, many of whom turn in strong work throughout The Undeclared War’s six episodes.

That’s especially true when it comes to The Outfit‘s Mark Rylance, who injects the series with his usual quiet gravitas. Simon Pegg, meanwhile, turns in a delightfully understated performance as Danny, a man who is decidedly not prepared for the severity of the threat he finds himself facing in The Undeclared War. Although the series’ latter installments turn Saara into an increasingly passive and reactive protagonist as well, Hannah Khalique-Brown always manages to deftly navigate and portray her character’s intense internal conflict.

The Undeclared War | Official Trailer | Peacock Original

In its final moments, The Undeclared War does also succeed at bringing its story to a close on a satisfyingly somber, bittersweet note, one that makes it clear just what kind of sacrifices have to be made in order to maintain peace during a time when the click of a computer mouse can do more damage than most bombs. That’s a message that is undeniably important to remember these days, which is why it’s such a shame that The Undeclared War doesn’t communicate it as smoothly as it could have.

The Undeclared War begins streaming Thursday, August 18 on Peacock. Digital Trends was given access to all six of the show’s episodes.

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