In a recurring feature called Partisan Cinema, A. J. Black looks at movies from a political slant, gleaning insight from them about how they relate to society then, and indeed now…
Brexit: The Uncivil War is current, fascinating, terrifying and quite frankly absurd in equal measure.
It came as no surprise to find out a major consultant on this joint Channel Four and HBO drama was Tim Shipman, the author of All Out War, a comprehensive, forensic exposure of the battle central to Toby Haynes’ film: the Leave and Remain campaign’s divisive, controversial conflict to decide the outcome of the EU Referendum in June 2016, which very quickly became known as ‘Brexit’. For anyone in the UK, there is no word you are more likely to see, read or hear about politically right now than Brexit, save perhaps the surname Trump or the word Covid. It is all pervasive, all-consuming, and Shipman’s book places into clear context just how we ended up where we currently are.
The Uncivil War is, essentially, an adaptation of his non-fiction tale of events from both sides of the camp, though it is framed around, frankly, the far more interesting side of the divide: the Leave campaign. The campaign who won. The campaign with characters far less milquetoast than anyone who fought to Remain. The campaign who fought a dirty war of new frontiers and who the Remain organisation were, almost always, two steps behind. I say this as a firm Remainer—let’s get that pretty clear right off the bat—who thinks Brexit is the single greatest British catastrophe since appeasement.
Nevertheless, The Uncivil War attempts to show us the real story. The story behind all of the news reports, and the political briefings. The story you have heard on fringe websites or even via conspiracy theorists, or slanted from newspapers right and left. The story of how Brexit changed democracy and changed politics, in a way nobody in Britain, the EU or beyond, ever expected. All Out War is teeming with inside jobs, murky suggestions of dark political wizardry, and schemes upon schemes in a battle often outside the minds eye of the public.
What we actually end up with is Brexit: The Panto, with Benedict Cumberbatch as the veritable Peter Pan.
Cumberbatch is perfect casting for the role of Dominic Cummings, or certainly how writer James Graham attempts to depict him here.
Cummings is the central character around which the political camp of Brexit circulates; a highly educated, relatively reclusive genius in waiting, politically unambiguous for the majority of the story, and someone who can make deductive leaps and work to a vision nobody around him can grasp. Yes, this is Sherlock Does Brexit – all Cumberbatch needs are the words floating around on screen like the BBC’s Conan Doyle adaptation. He even has a Watson-like stooge in political strategist Matthew Elliott (John Heffernan).
In other words, this is a role Cumberbatch can now essay in his sleep; arch, unknowable, distancing, rude, fast-talking and strident. It could be Sherlock. With an American accent and a cape it could be Stephen Strange. With a psychopathic edge and some dodgy genetics, it could be Khan Noonien Singh. Cumberbatch is a great actor but he’s in serious danger of only becoming great at one thing. The Uncivil War doesn’t feel like he needs to stretch himself, despite the fact Cummings begins and remains, to an extent, an enigma. He is also one of the few characters in Haynes’ film it is unclear as to whether we’re meant to like or hate.
Everyone else, almost to a man, is pure, broad caricature. Arron Banks is the boorish, laddish, rich ignoramus who pushes away the champagne and instead grabs a lager. Nigel Farage is a self-aggrandising Del Boy in a sheepskin coat he has probably had since 1986. Michael Gove and Boris Johnson are myopic, bumbling buffoons (though they barely feature, when in All Out War they’re easily as central as Cummings). Only Rory Kinnear as Cummings’ Remain opposite, Craig Oliver, emerges with some semblance of true characterisation, serving as the Establishment bulwark against Cummings’ digital-driven, ‘new’ politics.
The problem is that The Uncivil War seems as confused about what it wants to say, and why it wants to say it, as the entirety of the Referendum campaign, and the ‘fustercluck’ that has been the subsequent, and still ongoing, Brexit negotiations.
Who are we supposed to root for here?
Is Cummings some kind of revolutionary, folk-heroic visionary who can see through the Establishment bluster? Is he an amoral opportunist who manipulated people’s emotions and fears via emergent social media technology for political gain? Were the Vote Leave campaign actually a fairly noble cause rather than the Leave.EU group of supposed crooks and racists, as typified by UKIP fanciers Banks and Farage? All and none of these could be answered with a yes. Just as much as the underlying suspicion that everyone involved in making this firmly voted Remain and feel everything Cummings did is a great British tragedy.
So what is this pantomime-level of frequent absurdity, veering as it does between intentionally operatic strings to underline the buffoonery of the campaign to the haunting horror of Jo Cox’s murder, trying to say?
Haynes has plenty of form directing major British drama series such as Doctor Who or Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, while Graham is a noted playwright, but they are no Stephen Frears and Peter Morgan, much as they aspire to be. The style and approach of The Uncivil War recalls other TV dramas which have also flirted with a cinematic scope, such as The Queen or The Deal or The Special Relationship, but with those fictions there was a clear and significant difference: all of them were depicting events quite some years after they took place. How the Queen and her family coped with Princess Diana’s death, or Tony Blair’s prime ministerial bargaining with Gordon Brown, none of these stories had the urgency and immediacy of the Brexit tale.
Granted, those were never stories that could be depicted around the time they happened, as they took place behind closed doors, whereas the tapestry of Brexit has been playing out for years across every TV screen and smartphone in the land, but if anything that makes The Uncivil War even more questionable as a piece of television, not less. How can Brexit and its consequences, and crucially its key players, be adequately and accurately depicted while the whole process is still rumbling on? The counter argument is, of course, that the events Haynes’ film depicts are already recorded history. This happened and perhaps to better understand where Brexit is going, we need a better understanding of how it came to be.
The difficulty is that The Uncivil War quite dangerously reinforces the notion that Brexit itself is a consequence of a deep existential problem within the British nation, “a battle for Britain’s soul” as Craig Oliver at one point describes.
To anyone paying attention, this does not feel like news.
Which is ironic because The Uncivil War frequently feels like a whole brace of news articles, broadcasts, books and papers brewed together into a script which is designed chiefly to educate as opposed to fully dramatise. Haynes intersperses real life news and political footage, chiefly during montages, to aid the drama being told, while Cummings throughout talks about “the noise” he can hear all around, which only goes away once Leave win. Are we meant to believe Cummings thought he could hear the pulse of the nation? That he had become one with the Force? What? It goes beyond dramatic license. It enters the world of absurdist fantasy.
One service The Uncivil War perhaps does is to contextualise the nebulous role of Cambridge Analytica and the shadowy Robert Mercer in the Brexit story, something which is essential and key to how democracy was challenged and compromised by the Leave campaign to revolutionise how the political game was played. Haynes film goes out of its way to suggest such methods were devious and the forces and technology behind them sinister, but it will do nothing to stem any of the divisions already in place between the Leavers and Remainers. It does a good job of depicting the morass of confusion around Brexit, which was perhaps the entire point.
Yet it remains a bizarre mix of mordant comedy, stark reality, terrifying unreality and broad pantomime which never seems to understand why it exists, except perhaps to quite unashamedly tap into Britain’s obsession with the EU problem to reach as wide an audience as possible. The Uncivil War itself almost feels an uncivil story to tell right now in these troubled, uncertain times.
It could be, therefore, the Brexit Movie Panto we all deserve.