As he strutted onto the Downing Street garden last Monday, Dominic Cummings was the most controversial man in Britain. Breaking lockdown codes he helped create caused nationwide furore, with politicians on both sides of the spectrum demanding he step down. Yet his refusal to listen to others, and his self-appointed holier-than-thou approach, is what made his role in the 2016 EU referendum equally significant.
That’s where Brexit: The Uncivil War, a Channel 4-produced TV movie, steps in. Set long before Cummings’ trip to Durham, it examines the man who crafted the Leave campaign, and changed contemporary British politics in the favour of unelected, often shadowy advisers.
Played by Benedict Cumberbatch (in a performance that feels Sherlock-lite and dry), we meet Cummings as a sceptic disillusioned by traditional Westminster politics. Approached by UKIP MP Douglas Carswell (Simon Paisley Day) and strategist Matthew Elliot (an understated John Heffernan) to spearhead the anti-EU brigade, he devises a plan to undermine traditional political campaigning, while putting his rivals in an untenable position.
First-time director Toby Haynes makes his criticism of Cummings’ approach – involving mining electorate data and piling on targeted advertising – pretty apparent, even down to the film’s name: this is certainly an Uncivil campaign being run, and the film highlights the deceit and lies that occurred. Its representation of real-life figures is equally scathing: Boris Johnson is portrayed as a bumbling fool, and little more than Cummings’ mouthpiece, as he immediately asks for Cummings’ opinion following speeches, and produces gaffes when questioned alone. Yet many have criticised the film for its cartoonish portrayal of other political figures such as Nigel Farage (satirised by Paul Ryan), deeming it dangerously underplaying their sinister motives.
Yet while an interesting concept: a Social Network-inflected look into one of Britain’s most polarising political events ever, it may not be the correct approach for a man like Cummings, who especially now, is so publicly reviled. How can audiences sympathise with a man who lets jingoistic Leave.EU propaganda go unchecked, and is willing to scapegoat Turkey to achieve his goals? Zuckerberg was an interesting analytical focus due to the good intentions he ostensibly had, but the same cannot be said for Cummings – and it leaves the film without a moral centre to support. Haynes tries his best – establishing him as a loving husband, expectant father and being plagued by mysterious and undefined noises – but perhaps a Wolf of Wall Street approach where even though the protagonist isn’t likeable, they’re at least endearing, but Cummings – a suited man among a sea of other suited men – isn’t that.
Similarly, Haynes arguably bites off too much political conflict than he can chew: hugely important elements of the 2016 referendum are referenced, but not given the screen time they deserve: the horrific assassination of MP Jo Cox is mentioned, processed for a few minutes, then disappears, and such an abhorrent blemish on the referendum deserved more critical outlook than that. Haynes tries to examine the negative impact the British political landscape has had on social cohesion – mostly done through an interesting focus-group scene – but skipping such crucial turning points seems short-sighted.
That is what prevents Brexit: The Uncivil War from becoming definitive viewing for those impacted by Brexit. Its concept is certainly intriguing – telling the Brexit story through the perspective of a man who until very recently remained in the shadows – but the script fails to cover the events particularly well, glossing over key events, and most of the film’s entertainment comes from seeing political figures lampooned.