When Channel 4 started running adverts for their drama Brexit: The Uncivil War, it seemed like a parody. The title was alarmingly hyperbolic, there were multiple shots of Benedict Cumberbatch wryly looking directly at the camera and the mere presence of Boris Johnson screamed satire. If it wasn’t on Channel 4, I wouldn’t have believed it was real.
It aired early this January, more than a year and a half after the Brexit vote, and follows the behind-the-scenes running of the Vote Leave campaign, especially Dominic Cummings, the eccentric campaign director. There’s a certain underdog charm to the film’s Vote Leave campaign, as it is made clear how much the odds are stacked against them. The audience, obviously already informed of the result of the referendum, can revel in the complacency shown by the Stronger in Europe campaign. Brexit: The Uncivil War is a mix of 2015’s The Big Short and the BBC’s Sherlock. The director, Toby Haynes, lists an episode of Sherlock in his filmography, along with 10 episodes of M.I. High.
The politics and philosophy of the Vote Leave campaign is communicated to the audience in a similar fashion to economic the comedy The Big Short (about the 2007-2008 global financial crisis), with direct to camera addresses and exposition kept clear-cut and to a minimum. This keeps the film’s pacing consistent which works to its advantage, especially with a taut 92 minute92-minute run time. While some may argue that this is reductive of the nuances of the real lifereal-life political events, this seems like an unfair criticism of a film that is so obviously trying to be entertaining first, and informative second.
Cumberbatch’s character, Dominic Cummings, is very similar to the actor’s turn as Sherlock Holmes. He is portrayed as simultaneously brilliant and insufferable, alienated and an astute observer of the political landscape. In anyone else’s hands, this performance could have been obnoxious or overly unsympathetic, but Cumberbatch lends Cummings just the right amount of dry wit and aloof sarkiness. This is central to the success of the film, as Cummings is an obscure character in the Brexit narrative, but still a fascinating figure. Indeed, one of the film’s strengths is delighting in telling the behind-the-scenes story, which keeps it engaging and entertaining when the news has been so consistently dominated by the never-ending farce that is Brexit. Other highlights in the film include Rory Kinnear as Cumming’s frustrated counterpart in the remain camp and Paul Ryan in a ridiculous take on Nigel Farage.
Overall, Brexit: The Uncivil War does not refrain from pulling any punches in its portrayal of the Brexit campaign. It is smart, well pacedwell-paced, and most importantly entertaining. When the collective national conscious is so obsessed with Brexit, this film feels like a refreshing review of the events that have been so often analysed and discussed. It clearly delights in offering a first draft of history, which is impressive a mere two years following the Brexit vote.