Brexit does not exist at one point in time: it was, it is, and it shall be. What I mean by this is: Brexit could be seen as having “happened” on June 23 2016, when 52% of the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union; or Brexit could be seen as an ongoing process which only began when Article 50 was triggered; or Brexit can be perceived as a future event that will (probably) occur on the March 29 of this year.
All of this points to one thing: Brexit is as confusing as it is divisive. You can read however many news articles about it as you like and you’ll still most likely be left scratching your head, because not even our politicians know what is going to happen. Enter Brexit: The Uncivil War, a ninety-minute film about the 2016 referendum which first aired on Channel 4 on the January 7 2019. It was written by James Graham (Coalition) and directed by Toby Haynes (Doctor Who, Sherlock). The film focuses on head of the Vote Leave campaign Dominic Cummings, played by Benedict Cumberbatch. While his face is still recognisably Cumberbatchian, he does not look like the sleek actor we have come to know in Hollywood movies. Rather, with his hairline receding and his brow wrinkled, Cumberbatch conveys a sense of age and weariness in his depiction of Cummings.
After a fictionalised opening scene in which Cummings disdainfully gives evidence to a public inquiry about the legality of his campaign, we jump right into the aftermath of David Cameron’s victory in the 2015 general election, which opened the door for a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU. Although reluctant at first to jump into the vipers’ nest that is Westminster politics, Cummings is eventually persuaded to lead the Leave campaign, and a lot of his strategizing takes place alone inside a storage room. Cummings is never entirely alone, however, and he often speaks directly to the camera à la the Underwoods in House of Cards. “Everyone knows who won,” he explains. “But not everyone knows how.” This Frank Underwood-esque breaking of the fourth wall, plus the fact that he is played by Sherlock frickin’ Holmes, conveys the impression that Cummings was a political genius who single-handedly changed the fate of the country. Perhaps this really was the case, but it seems more likely that he was one of many factors that led to Britons narrowly voting to leave the EU. More mainstream figures such as Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and of course Nigel Farage were also decisive in securing the shock outcome.
Brexit: The Uncivil War is, however, a film, not a documentary – if you couldn’t tell from all the dramatic music – and it is more exciting to present the referendum as a battle between two men. Cummings and his Remain rival Craig Oliver (Rory Kinnear) are, therefore, at the centre of this film, with other figures like Johnson, Gove and Farage marginalised to comedic side-roles. This simplification is problematic, because it would seem to absolve these political players of some of their culpability for the Pandora’s box they helped unleash. Indeed, the film might have worked even better as a TV series, as it would have allowed James Graham to delve deeper into all the ins and outs of the referendum.
On the other hand, what Graham most likely set out to do in writing this drama was to create an exciting, informative and balanced film about a referendum which profoundly changed Britain’s destiny. In this he has largely succeeded. I voted Remain, as indeed did Graham himself, and the success of Brexit: The Uncivil War is that it allows both sides to see how the other side thinks. Remain-voters can be privy to the views of individuals up and down the United Kingdom who voted to leave the European Union because they believed it would be better for themselves and for the country, whilst Leave-voters can get an insight into the very real concerns of many people who voted to remain in the EU, even if they had reservations about that body itself. The film’s relative objectivity and verisimilitude is evidenced by the fact that it has been praised by both Remainers and Leavers alike.
Brexit: The Uncivil War – which portrays both sides sympathetically, without lionising or demonising either – is important in our divisive times because it helps to bridge the ever-widening gulf between the polarised echo chambers of Leave and Remain.