Brexit: The Uncivil War review


The 2010s have renewed fierce debate about the role which media plays in public discourse. This, chiefly, concerns representation of minorities on screen, but it is a broader issue regarding the responsibilities which media and cinema may or may not hold, which media adapting real-life events may or may not hold.


The key critique in the run-up to Brexit: The Uncivil War was its lack of timeliness: it's inappropriate to construct a drama about events which are still unfolding, especially when some individuals involved are under criminal investigation. Now that the drama has been broadcast, this critique still holds, albeit for a different reason.


It is no surprise that writer James Graham opted for Dominic Cummings as the protagonist of Brexit: The Uncivil War. After all, no other political operative self-mythologises like Cummings, who imposed himself to exile in a Durham bunker so he could read for two and a half years, and who writes blog posts encompassing thousands of words which can all be boiled down to 'my brain is massive.'


What is more pressing, however, is whether it was responsible to cast Benedict Cumberbatch, an actor whose speciality is playing brilliant and beloved yet uniquely estranged men, as Dominic Cummings. How can the viewer extract their pre-awareness of what a Benedict Cumberbatch performance entails? Can they? Do the filmmakers want them to? And, if not, what is the purpose of Brexit: The Uncivil War?

The film is, overall, even-handed, addressing the major criticisms of Vote Leave and Stronger In convincingly. The Leavers are ambivalent at best about the dodgy digital tactics utilised to win the vote, quite happy to promote a nostalgic vision for the past, 'fictional or not' as Cumberbatch's Cummings says, without bearing the responsibilities of enacting their policy. The Remainers are grey, dull and disunited, most wonderfully expressed in a one-take sequence featuring Craig Oliver, his daughters, peas, and a conference call.


At a ground level, Graham articulates the divisions charging through Brexit Britain perfectly. 'Ordinary' people are given a decent chunk of screentime, differentiating the film from its brethren in political dramas, with all viewpoints managing to feel compelling. When you visit the derelict rustbelt of Clacton and hear an unemployed couple tell of how they feel left behind, lacking control, or when we see a mum in a focus group break down in tears because she's sick of being told she's stupid for how she feels (in what is a subtle, minor, yet brilliant performance), how can you not feel sympathy?


But equally, when Rory Kinnear's Craig Oliver (who is always a treat - Kinnear, that is) doggedly insists that Vote Leave are liars, to no avail, how can you not share his frustration? Cinema is perfectly situated to convey these issues and put a face to them.

It is a story well told, with electric structure and pacing (rare for political dramas), sweeping cinematography and kinetic camerawork (also rare) and honest, entertaining performances (no comment). I was gripped. But we must return to the question of purpose.


Will there ever be a 'right' time for a Brexit drama? Chou Enlai mused in 1972 that it was 'still too early to say' what impact the French Revolution would have. If so, who decides when it is 'right'? Art is unbound from this.

However, art does have responsibilities, and artists must be at least aware of these, even if they do not adhere to them, because art has implications for how we perceive the world. Spend all your time watching Benedict Cumberbatch movies and you're likely to adopt some of the mannerisms. Such responsibilities are amplified when the story is true, and the makers must acknowledge that their representation will feed into the electorate's perception and understanding of Brexit.

Perhaps they will take away from Brexit: The Uncivil War that it is a great drama with a fair assessment of events. Perhaps they will use it to shore up their pre-existing prejudices. 


Perhaps, however, knowing what they know about Benedict Cumberbatch performances, and taking a fancy to the sheer individualism of Dominic Cummings, who will tell anyone he dislikes to fuck off without care for the consequences, they will begin to look at a campaign which split open historic socio-cultural wounds of Britain and fostered a toxic political culture which has resulted in the deadlock of the British state, the decline of Britain's global stature, and the murder of an MP, with rose-tinted glasses.

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