Regardless of what side of the proverbial Brexit fence you’re sitting on, I think there’s one thing we can all agree on: things are a little bit of a mess right now. In the past few weeks alone, it’s been an exceptionally tumultuous time in UK politics — from a leadership challenge to the growing prospect of leaving the EU without a deal.
But, just when you thought you couldn’t bear to hear that cursed six-letter b-word again, Channel 4 is serving up a dollop of referendum-themed drama starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Rory Kinnear.
The idea of sitting through a fictionalised version of how the Brexit sausage got made is probably enough to make any of us expire through sheer exasperation. Brexit: The Uncivil War is a feature film delving into the data-driven political campaign behind the most seismic and divisive referendum in modern British history. Cumberbatch stars as Vote Leave’s campaign director Dominic Cummings — a man David Cameron is said to have called a “career psychopath” and who many Remainers might consider a real-life villain. Cumberbatch’s rendering of the political strategist behind the operation is slightly more nuanced and, well, unvillain-like, however.
When the trailer for Brexit dropped, an almighty uproar descended as many viewers felt the trailer smacked of glamorisation of a figure who spearheaded a campaign that was subsequently found to be in breach of electoral law. Among other criticisms, there’s also, ya know, the fact that we’re still actually living through Brexit — and the outcome is, to a certain extent, still up in the air. Too soon?
“Whether he was motivated by political ambition or not, by the time I met him, I met an incredibly happy man who certainly wasn’t posing.”
Despite being a Remainer himself, Cumberbatch wanted to show the human side of Cummings. He brings Sherlockian elements into his portrayal — you see Cummings sitting in a broom cupboard in the dark, scribbling his musings onto the door. You see him, in the very nascent beginnings of the campaign, calling out the names of famous leaders from history to draw inspiration from their leadership strategy. Is this the work a somewhat scruffy, understated genius or the self-aware musings of a pseudo-intellectual? Hard to tell.
The real-life Cummings hired Canadian digital firm AggregateIQ — a company that reportedly had “undisclosed links” to Cambridge Analytica — to unleash targeted political advertising on Facebook. Cummings was quoted on AIQ’s website as saying, “we couldn’t have done it without them,” and attributes the success of the Leave campaign to AIQ’s contributions.
The Vote Leave campaign was this year found to have broken electoral law by the UK’s Electoral Commission after a nine month investigation. The investigation found that Vote Leave broke the law by exceeding its £7MM spending limit by channelling £675,000 into a pro-leave youth group.
So, how exactly does one go about trying to get inside the head of the man who spearheaded the aforementioned campaign? Simple. Cumberbatch went and met him, of course.
Screenwriter James Graham told Mashable that Cummings was reluctant to meet initially because he was concerned the script would be heavily pro-Remain — an idea Cummings was eventually disabused of. When Cumberbatch finally met Cummings, he met a man who, funnily enough, was pretty unhappy about the way Brexit was panning out.
“Whether he was motivated by political ambition or not, by the time I met him, I met an incredibly happy man who certainly wasn’t posing,” said Cumberbatch. “He seemed to be incredibly content being at home with his family. So I was surprised but I didn’t feel I was meeting a politico.”
“I felt I was meeting someone who still had great convictions and idealism who is pretty distraught about how it’s turning out,” Cumberbatch continued. “That was in the summer and he was most distraught about what he felt he wasn’t being delivered because of the way the politics was grinding down the results in his eyes.”
“I felt I was meeting someone who still had great convictions and idealism who is pretty distraught about how it’s turning out.”
But, aside from his current take on how Brexit’s going, Cumberbatch also wanted to get inside Cummings’ headspace to understand questions like: “What makes you tick? Who inspired you at school? What’s your favourite colour? Do you prefer bitter or lager? Who do you support? Are you a swimmer or a walker? What do you do to burn off steam?”
Cumberbatch also watched two pieces of footage of the man himself on Youtube ad nauseum to try to mimic his mannerisms, posture, and his “very particular Durham dialect,” and “his way of holding himself in public.” And he spoke to staff who worked alongside Cummings on the campaign to gain an idea of what the man was like behind closed doors. “One of the most striking things was how calm and composed they said he was throughout the entire campaign,” said Cumberbatch. “He has a very even spirit level.”
Watching Brexit: The Uncivil War you’ll notice the campaign directors of Remain and Leave are agreed on one thing: regarding Brexit as a binary is very misguided. Both appear to agree that it’s more nuanced and complicated than that. Your relationship with this film will likely be just as complicated.