Brexit Movie Portrays A Nerdish, Destructive Dominic Cummings, Before He Was Famous
Brexit: The Uncivil War is nearly two years old now, and if Dominic Cummings: The Movie — which is what this effectively is — were to be made now it would of course have to cover the pandemic, the experiments in ophthalmology and the eventual fall from grace.
But as long as you don’t take it too literally, and accept it as a wry and fantastical character portrait founded in rather than scrupulously tied to factuality, it remains a film with many merits: funny, watchable, more insightful about some aspects of the Brexit battle than the general air of levity might lead you to expect, and anchored by a terrifically believable performance from Benedict Cumberbatch.
As with Cummings the man, you’re never quite sure to what extent Cumberbatch — or indeed the film as a whole — is being serious or just being a smarty-boots because it’s so fun. But it almost doesn’t matter, because the script (by the playwright James Graham) captures so perfectly the spirit of the Cummings we know and probably don’t love.
“We’re going to follow algorithmic statistical analysis,” he tells his team on the Leave campaign. It’s not clear if he attributes a specific meaning to the phrase, or just likes the string of technical-sounding terms. He talks like an op-ed or a blog post; he’s “desperate to be seen as the visionary architect of a New World Order” but is just “an egotist with a wrecking ball”, says an opponent.
There’s an impression that Cummings doesn’t really want to leave the EU — he just relishes the challenge
Indeed, there’s a strong impression that Cummings doesn’t particularly want to leave the EU, as such; he’s simply interested in the challenge of engineering it. Even on his own side, this prompts concern: someone will later say “we need to talk about Dom”, worried about his outspokenness and his insensitivity to the accepted ways of doing things.
And he wields both the ego and the wrecking ball almost continually throughout this dramatisation of two different Brexit struggles: first that between Cummings and the older, more buttoned-down Eurosceptics for control of the Leave campaign, and then (though it feels a smaller part of the movie) the combat between Leave and Remain themselves, fought on the battlegrounds of social media and British minds.
It is not a left-vs-right film (and a salutary reminder that Brexit was not purely a left-vs-right issue either): anyone hoping for 90 minutes of Tory-bashing will be disappointed. In fact the Remain campaign head Craig Oliver — a Tory, a former head of communications at 10 Downing Street — is as close as anyone comes to being a hero, or at least a sympathetic central figure; it is he who delivers the wrecking ball line, and he who presciently warns Cummings late in the film to “be careful what you wish for. You won’t be able to control it.”
Cummings seems to half-see Oliver’s point about the dangers of encouraging tribalism (and my goodness, haven’t we all seen it every day since before the referendum), but he can’t resist doing what he’s doing: “Change is exciting.”
Appropriately, then, the film is about new versus old guard as much as — or even more than — Leave versus Remain; see for example the contrast drawn between Cummings’s infatuation with science (however shaky) and Michael Gove’s insistence that he has “had enough of experts”. If there is a villain it is probably Aden Gillett as Robert Mercer, but the part played by him, Cambridge Analytica, and the rest of the manipulators-for-hire gets little attention here. Despite its name it is essentially a movie about Cummings, not Brexit.
Mesmerisingly rendered by Cumberbatch, he initially seems almost dysfunctional — gloomy, withdrawn, secretive, largely humourless despite occasional manic laughter — and an eccentric side remains on display throughout the movie; he’s repeatedly shown brainstorming alone in a cleaner’s cupboard. John Heffernan’s Matthew Elliott, a strategist for Vote Leave, says that putting Cummings in charge of the campaign “is risky…he’s different”.
Indeed, his (and the film’s) very first lines suggest that he might not just be different, he might have a screw at least slightly loose: “Britain makes a noise. An actual noise, did you know that? It groans. It’s been groaning for some time. A hum, that only very few people can hear.” In a surreal moment, he puts his head to the ground, apparently to hear that noise emanating from the earth beneath Jaywick, Essex.
Or perhaps that’s not so much hallucination as self-importance. In any case, he’s not so dysfunctional as to be dysfunctional, as it were. He’s impatient and petulant in meetings, yet he can motivate them too. He name-checks “Thucydides, Kipling, Tolstoy”; Nicholas Day’s John Mills, the Vote Leave chairman, calls him a “geeky anarchist who wants to show off”; yet still Cummings can relate to people in pubs, or at least pretend to, when he’s interrogating them for their opinions. And the movie doesn’t entirely overlook a more human side — we meet his pregnant wife, for example.
“He’s a curious mix politically of the sophisticated and the thuggish, which I think is what Benedict tried to play,” screenwriter Graham has been quoted as saying. “He can write a 5,000-word thesis on the applicability of the Apollo space programme to civil service reform, and yet this is the also the author of ‘Get Brexit Done’ — which is the rhetorical equivalent of a shrug and middle finger.”
The movie is adamant that Cummings is clever, if not wise, a point illustrated in the development of the TAKE BACK CONTROL slogan
And certainly one thing the movie is adamant about is that he is clever, even if not wise, a point brilliantly illustrated in the strategising on Brexit communication. “We can make this about something more than Europe,” says Cummings. “Europe just becomes a symbol, a cipher.” But he is aware that for many voters remaining in Europe is the obvious choice, and leaving is losing something.
This leads to the slogan TAKE CONTROL, and then — in what’s portrayed as a forehead-slapping lightbulb moment, though perhaps it wasn’t in reality — to TAKE BACK CONTROL: staying is now losing something which “we” had before, and to which “we’re” rightfully entitled.
Cumberbatch is surrounded by an outstanding supporting cast whose portrayals seem to catch the essence of the men (they are all men, pretty much) even if many performances would have benefited from being turned down a notch or two. Much of the casting appears to be led by appearances, and it often works as well in that respect as the Dick Cheney flick Vice. For example, Tim McMullan as Bernard Jenkin — the only character here I have actually met — captures the man just as I remember him.
In a larger part, Paul Ryan as Nigel Farage is especially good, likewise Oliver Maltman as Gove. The extreme familiarity of Boris Johnson nowadays works visually against Richard Goulding although he has the diction just right. Heffernan’s Elliott is creepy with his very very small smiles, while Lee Boardman’s Arron Banks is nasty in a different way.
Banks is a bit of a cartoon thug, though, while Farage is sheer buffoonery (they resemble an old-school comic duo); and it’s debatable whether the film benefits from its comic elements — the first meeting of Elliott and Simon Paisley Day’s Douglas Carswell, for instance, is played for laughs. It does get darker as the vote gets nearer, and after the murder of the MP Jo Cox, but the storytelling remains secondary to the interplay of its characters.
Still, it’s all very well-explained, even if it is occasionally slightly clunky (much, perhaps most, of the dialogue is expository, as the direction can be too — when somebody mentions that people are quick to upload things to Facebook these days, we’re treated to shots of bystanders on phones, presumably for the benefit of those who had forgotten what “uploading to Facebook” means).
And there are some stand-out scenes: for example an effective, though very familiar, sequence intercutting between Leave and Remain strategy meetings, or Rory Kinnear’s Craig Oliver in a telephone conference from his home, trying to talk to David Cameron and Peter Mandelson at the same time as shushing the kids.
Brexit: The Uncivil War may be of minimal interest to non-Britons, but to those of us in the UK it is perhaps of even greater interest now than at its release, because of Cummings’s presumed role in formulating government response to coronavirus (not just his infamous, lockdown-breaking jaunt to the North of England).
It is also a useful reminder, now that we are all hating each other and espousing binary positions over COVID-19, that the virus can’t be blamed for this pandemic of online partisanship; Brexit was perfectly capable on its own of splitting the country to the point that which “side” you were on sometimes became more important than arguments or evidence.
Cummings’s culpability in all this is doubtless sometimes overstated, and the film does not, in the end, make much of a judgement on him: it’s not an anti-Cummings hatefest but it’s no hagiography, either. He emerges as dangerous not because of what he stands for, but because he doesn’t really stand for much beyond the delight of winning in a clever way; and because, caught up in that, swept along by the sheer irresistibility of change, he doesn’t consider consequences.
As one character says: “Anyone can start a fire. He’s not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty…fucking arsehole.”
If you enjoyed my review (or disagree profoundly with what I say) — most importantly, let me know! But if you’re feeling very rich (or just very generous), you can buy me a coffee too.
• Brexit: The Uncivil War is available on Amazon Prime Video, Netflix and disc in the UK; other territories may differ.