REVIEW: Brexit: The Uncivil War (2019)

Release Poster — HBO

The following is a review of Brexit: The Uncivil War — Directed by Toby Haynes.

HBO’s latest TV-film, Brexit: The Uncivil War, comes from the director of a number of Doctor Who-episodes as well as the brilliant Sherlock-episode “The Reichenbach Fall,” Toby Haynes, who has now reteamed with Sherlock-star Benedict Cumberbatch to retell the story of the infamous portmanteau term, the solution for which still confuses and frustrates many people around the world.

Haynes’ Brexit ends with a caption that was basically my initial thought: “The story is still unfolding.” Though certainly timely, my initial thought was that this story was being told much too soon. I’m not sure we have the right removed perspective to tell the story in the proper way.

Regardless, this is the story that Haynes and writer James Graham have told and though it is electric in spurts it is largely much too superficial to be truly interesting to anyone but the least informed viewers who may still be lost due to the political landscape as described here.

The film, smartly, is all about the build-up to the referendum, and though it does present select leaders of both the ‘leave’ and ‘remain’-campaigns as competent individuals, the same cannot be said for the vast majority of real political figures portrayed in Brexit: The Uncivil War, and no single individual is depicted as more intelligent and on top of things as Dominic Cummings is.

In Brexit: The Uncivil War, Dominic Cummings (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) is hired to be the campaign director of the ‘Vote Leave’-campaign, which advocated in favor of voting ‘leave’ in the United Kingdom European Union-membership referendum. The film tells the story of how Cummings supposedly changed British politics ‘forever’ with era-defining digital media and shrewd campaign tactics.

Any film is lucky to have Benedict Cumberbatch in the lead role, and he is well-cast in a role that asks of him to play the smartest guy in the room at all times. He knows this type quite well, and he handles it with ease here. Whenever Cumberbatch is on-screen, I think he elevates the product, but the Sherlock-star is unable to wrest the film away from its fairly uninteresting purpose: to enlighten those who know nothing of any of it.

Because this film is unable to tell you much that you don’t already know. This film will likely fare better with American audiences as they are unlikely to be familiar with someone like Boris Johnson or Nigel Farage. What they’ll learn about them is that they are both cartoon characters because that is how they are portrayed. Farage is depicted as a dangerous nut they can use as a pawn independently but whose influence is not discussed thoroughly. Michael Gove and Boris Johnson’s introduction should tell you all you need to know about what they are going to be for the rest of the film.

Several eurosceptic Tories are presented as grossly incompetent and are sometimes ridiculed for not understanding social media and for always being a step behind Cummings, who is described as a ‘geeky anarchist’ whose eureka-moments, eventually, inspire ambitions of “altering the matrix of politics.”

If you are not familiar with all the ins and outs of Brexit, then be warned. Though it will present you with a lot of information about the campaigns, it is all very superficial and the political landscape may seem daunting in spite of the visual trick used to simplify allegiances. These include a freeze-frame effect accompanied by information about names and occupations, and red-or-blue large letters stamped onto the screen signifying which referendum campaign they support.

Though presented as fairly competent, the remain-campaign leaders do not get nearly as much time dedicated to them until the final half-hour. And, on the other side of the aisle, I think you’ll be surprised by how little we see of Farage. As such, the film becomes a tad too fascinated by the supposed smarts of Cummings to give a thorough account of the campaigns and Farage’s direct influence. It’s all there in the film — everything you expect (including mentions of Steve Bannon and Cambridge Analytica) — but it never tells you more than you already knew if you’ve been following along.

The film has a recurring element about how Cummings hears this buzzing in the United Kingdom and that for it to stop he needs to do something. This idea felt underdeveloped, to me. Also, at some point, the film devolves and becomes little more than focus groups and news clips, and, at that point, the drama of it all is gone as, I thought, it became somewhat dull.

Toby Haynes’ Brexit: The Uncivil War does not feel like much more than a Wikipedia-film. I might recommend this to those unfamiliar with the whole ordeal, but if you have a working understanding of the referendum and all things surrounding it, then you are better off reading a non-fiction book about it. With that having been said, Benedict Cumberbatch is very engaging here, and, just like the film got lost in its subject, it is very easy to be enthralled by Cumberbatch’s inspired energy.

6 out of 10

– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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