Almost three years after the UK’s shock 2016 referendum vote to leave the EU, you’re probably bored of Brexit. The daily reports of the latest farcical events in the British parliament long since passed from comic to tragic, and finally just to plain: “I don’t care anymore.”
The rolling news cycles continue to offer a regular diet of “No Deal,” “People’s Vote,” “Backstop,” and constant schoolyard squabbling between parties who can’t even agree on what they want for themselves, never mind debate with their opponents, who, frustratingly, don’t know what they want for themselves either.
As such, you'd be forgiven for an inclination to pass over Toby Haynes' Channel 4 movie Brexit: The Uncivil War, when it screens on BBC First this Sunday, and becomes available on demand on OSN Play immediately afterwards.
You would, however, be wrong. Brexit, it turns out, is incredibly gripping, moving, and often hilarious stuff when you take all the boring bits out.
The real-life drama stars Bendict Cumberbatch as Dominic Cummings, the lead strategist of the official Vote Leave campaign, with Rory Kinnear as his Vote Remain counterpart, Craig Oliver.
A new twist on a tired tale
By focusing on these behind-the-scenes Machiavellis, rather than the MPs we’re so sick of seeing trading insults on the news, writer James Graham delivers a refreshing take on a well-worn subject, as well as a jaw-dropping look at some of the questionable tactics of the Vote Leave campaign (the official campaign has already been found guilty of breaking electoral law, while the splinter Leave.EU campaign is the subject of a criminal investigation), and the Remain team’s utter inability to counter Cummings’ techniques of data mining, social media manipulation, and misinformation. Cummings’ campaign may well have changed the way elections are fought forever.
From fake social media accounts to demonstrable falsehoods and a completely new software machine to identify off-radar possible supporters via intense data mining, then bombard them with misinformation, nothing was out of bounds in Cummings’ campaign. Even the campaign's slogan "Take Back Control" brilliantly created the false reality that Britain outside the EU was the status quo, and the Remain campaign were the interlopers trying to change this.
The result today is a divided Britain - as brilliantly demonstrated when a focus group meeting for the Remain side descends into a virtual brawl - and still no plan on Brexit. Cummings, incidentally, eschewed the traditional path of focus groups and did his research by talking to angry people in pubs.
Cumberbatch's Cummings comes across not so much as an ardent Leaver as a man on a mission to prove the efficiency of his new methods. There's an element of the actor's portrayal of Alan Turing from The Imitation Game, or even Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate in his Cummings – a socially awkward, single-minded genius with tunnel-vision on a singular mission, regardless of the morality, and despite the doubts of his peers, who regard him with at best suspicion and at worst outright disdain.
Why Cumberbatch was 'wary'
The actor agrees that for Cummings, who he met as part of his research for the role, the referendum campaign was perhaps as much about the journey as the destination: "From what I know, for him it's probably more about a certain status quo within politics that he felt was about short term careerism, and not about the idealism and drive to accept and develop change that is happening globally, whether it's environmental, political, social, economic," the actor tells The National.
Indeed, in the film Cummings concedes that the state of proto-civil war that has erupted in the British parliament and on its streets since the result was not what he intended, but lays the blame firmly at the feet of the old-school politicians’ inability to adapt.
Intented or not, however, Cumberbatch admits he had some misgivings about portraying a man who has been directly responsible for causing such ruptures in British society: “It really is the most divisive issue in politics that I can remember in my lifetime,” he says.
“As Dominic says in the drama, ‘Referendums are a really dumb idea’ precisely because they are so divisive. They suggest that really complex choices can be reduced to simple binaries of yes or no, red or blue, black or white. It’s far more complex than just the question of in or out on the ballot paper. Far, far more complex than that. So I suppose I was wary when I heard about the project.”
Cumberbatch may have been wary of the role for another, more personal reason – Cummings is certainly not the Sherlock and Dr Strange star's most dashing role, and the hair and wardrobe departments did their bit to downplay the actor's boyish good looks too.
“To be honest, unless I think it’s going to help a character, I try and leave all vanity at the door and let people help design the look or the image of a character,” Cumberbatch says. “I’ve got the face I’ve got. What’s great about being an actor is being able to transform. Sure I’ve got more hair than Dominic, and different coloured eyes, but so what? What I like about it is there’s no vanity about it, that’s a good thing. And it’s also really just about trying to give truth to a character. That’s what it’s always about.”
Cumberbatch gives a typically on-point performance, with great support from a cast including Kinnear, Paul Ryan and Lee Boardman as the oafish Nigel Farage and Aaron Banks, leaders of the rival Leave.EU campaign and Richard Goulding as Leave poster boy, the former Mayor of London Boris Johnson.
Far from being yet more boring Brexit rhetoric, the film is a political tragicomedy of almost Shakespearian proportions, while Haynes also threads in enough archive footage to remind us that the incredible events unfolding on screen actually, really happened, and not in some unfathomable period of history, but now.
The film almost renders political satire like The Thick of It and Veep redundant – why make this stuff up when you can just portray real events? Where to next for the likes of Armando Ianucci and Chris Morris, when the daily goings on in the UK parliament, not to mention the Whitehouse, make their most outrageous work look like turgid political drama?
'I hope it will make people think'
If I can’t convince the Brexit-weary to watch the film, perhaps Cumberbatch can.
The actor concedes that many would probably never wish to hear the word “Brexit” again, but this film has far more to it than the seemingly never-ending saga of Britain’s EU membership, or lack of: “It’s a really great story, beautifully told. And it is, after all, a story about arguably the most important single moment in this country for decades, and about the extraordinary way it came to pass,” he says. “But it’s also very funny, particularly with the depictions of some familiar figures. James Graham has written a brilliant, funny, engaging script that deals with some powerful and important themes while never losing its lightness of touch.”
Cumberbatch adds that, in the age of social media, the film has a further important point to make about how our data is used: “I hope it will make people think not just about the Brexit campaign, but how they are targeted more generally by political and commercial organisations, and particularly how the data they provide to these organisations is used. Whatever side of the argument you were, or are still on – whether you’re despondent, terrified, elated, hopeful, optimistic – James has written a fantastically entertaining drama.”
Brexit: The Uncivil War premieres on BBC First at 8pm tonight and will be available for streaming on demand on OSN Play immediately afterwards