‘Brexit: The Uncivil War’ drips with great British humour

Benedict Cumberbatch stars in a political tragicomedy with the verve of a tech thriller

 

Two and a half years after the Brexit referendum, and with less than three months to go before the UK likely crashes out of the European Union, is the story of Brexit even ready to be told? And, if so, how should it be told – as a mock heroic fantasy, a farcical comedy or a horrifying tragedy?

In short, has Brexit: The Uncivil War (Channel Four, Monday, 9pm) reached a deal?

The first major dramatic depiction of Brexit, a phenomenon that offers no fitting conclusion, the film concentrates instead on the rival campaigns behind the referendum. That makes its main character an unlikely figure – not a Prime Minister whistling cheerily into oblivion, nor a leathery rabble-rouser stoking immigration fears, but someone professionally invisible.

This is the Leave campaign director, Dominic Cummings, a prematurely balding political maverick who, for all his institutional resentment and vaulting ambition, never dared imagine that one day he would be played onscreen by Benedict Cumberbatch.

“We have to hack the political system,” Cumberbatch’s sullen Geordie tells the panjandrums of the Euro-sceptics, “like a cyber hack.” This, history records, would involve the notorious assistance of data firm Cambridge Analytica, and the stealth targeting of an untapped swath of voters through Facebook breaches.

Brexit: The Uncivil War, works like a political tragicomedy, but unravelling the role of data mining in the Leave campaign in conspiratorial whispers gives writer James Graham and director Toby Haynes some of the verve of a tech thriller.

Like the protagonist of The Social Network, Cummings is another aloof, erudite tactician and a morally amorphous “disrupter”. We first watch him slipping through time periods, either side of the referendum, in bracing, restless introduction, as though he was the sole prophet and architect of the upheaval.

He was not, of course, and the film briskly and unfussily enumerates all the major players (Theresa May, of course, is not one of them), giddily stamping their faces in freeze-frame with their political positions: there’s Ukip’s Douglas Carswell (“LEAVE”) and Nigel Farage (“VERY LEAVE”) for instance, then latterly Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, waving to each other from opposing opera boxes, each stamped, archly, with a question mark.

Johnson and Gove, whose cynical answers would soon be categorical, get some of the film’s most merciless and deservedly satirical treatment, each played by comedians and performed as clowns. Farage and boorish Ukip donor Arron Banks, meanwhile, come off as a more malevolent version of Laurel and Hardy.

Both are sideshows to Cummings, who, in performance and treatment, rests somewhere between a mad genius and a grandiose eccentric, listening to the noise of national unrest under street tarmacadam, or bivouacking himself into the supply cupboard.

“He’s not the messiah,” complains Rory Kinnear as his opposite number, a more traditional political operator, Craig Oliver, “he’s a very naughty… f**king bastard.”

Like that line, one “eureka” sequence in which Cummings realises the campaigns slogan – “Take Back Control” – is couched in mocking reversals and deflating ironies. Whatever about the film’s insights into British politics, it absolutely nails British humour.

By the time the film has turned to sorrow, and in the case of the assassination of Jo Cox, a severe and sobering one, it is too late to stop this runaway train. “It’s the sleep I miss,” Oliver tells Cummings during an accidental détente over beer, prior to the referendum. “God, I miss sleep,” Cummings agrees.

Characters here tend to reach for Avengers Assemble or John le Carré for their cultural reference, giddy with adventure, but Shakespeare is never far away: Sleep no more. Brexit does murder sleep.

It also poisons political discourse. The film is bracing and sharp, but more brilliant for how it puts faces to statistics, or brings momentous moments down to everyday action. One squabbling Downing Street conference call is held over a children’s dinner, for instance, while a Remain focus group falls into disheartening disorder. “I’m sick of feeling like I have nothing, know nothing, am nothing,” screams one woman.

Co-produced by Channel Four and HBO, the film’s final emphasis on the later election of President Trump is a little needless, like a smoking gun of political manipulation. Everyone has some idea about how we got into this mess. Who knows where it will end?

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