Brexit: The Uncivil War

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Brexit: The Uncivil War
A balding man in a blue jumper, his untidy shirt sticking out at the edges. He standings against a red background, with the word Brexit in large white letters.
Poster advertising HBO broadcast
Based onAll Out War: The Full Story of How Brexit Sank Britain's Political Class
by Tim Shipman
Unleashing Demons: The Inside Story of Brexit
by Craig Oliver
Directed byToby Haynes
Music byDaniel Pemberton[1]
Country of originUnited Kingdom
Original languageEnglish
ProducerLynn Horsford
CinematographyDanny Cohen
EditorMatthew Cannings
Running time92 minutes[2]
Production companyHouse Productions
Original networkChannel 4
Original release
  • 7 January 2019 (2019-01-07)

Brexit: The Uncivil War (simply Brexit in the US) is a 2019 British television drama film written by James Graham and directed by Toby Haynes.[3] It depicts the lead-up to the 2016 referendum through the activities of the strategists behind the Vote Leave campaign, that prompted the United Kingdom to exit the European Union, known as Brexit.[4] It aired on Channel 4 in the United Kingdom on 7 January, and aired on HBO in the United States on 19 January.[5] Benedict Cumberbatch stars as Dominic Cummings, the Campaign Director of the official designated Brexit-supporting group, Vote Leave.[6]

It received a nomination at the 71st Primetime Emmy Awards for Outstanding Television Movie but lost to Black Mirror: Bandersnatch.[7]


Before the opening credits, a frustrated Dominic Cummings is shown at a future fictional public inquiry in 2020 trying to explain that they have no understanding of the way in which technology is going to reshape politics, and therefore society, in the United Kingdom. After the opening credits, Cummings rejects an offer in 2015 by UKIP MP Douglas Carswell and political strategist Matthew Elliott to lead the Vote Leave campaign due to his contempt for "Westminister politics", but accepts when Carswell promises Cummings full control. The next sequences show Cummings outlining the core strategy on a whiteboard of narrow disciplined messaging delivered via algorithmic database-driven micro-targeting tools. Cummings rejects an approach by Nigel Farage and Arron Banks of Leave.EU to merge their campaigns, as his data shows Farage is an obstacle to winning an overall majority. Cummings' database-driven approach causes friction with Vote Leave MPs and donors, such as John Mills, who expect to conduct a traditional campaign using posters and phone-calls/leaflets delivered by local MPs. Mills, who chairs the Vote Leave campaign, tries to have Cummings fired to merge with Leave.EU, however, he instead finds himself getting fired.

The film shows Cummings, and his Remain counterpart Craig Oliver, laying out their strategies and opinion of each other. Both identify the third of UK voters who are still undecided as the key. Oliver identifies "Jobs and the Economy" as their key message, which his focus-groups have highlighted. Cummings, through his own informal research in pubs and meeting places, has identified "Loss of Control" as a common concern, and the possible accession of Turkey to the EU as a common fear. Cummings invokes Sun Tzu's The Art of War philosophy (he quotes "the 9th battlefield" from the Art of War, Chapter XI '孙子兵法:九地'), not to contest the key messages of Remain, but to focus on their own messages. In a eureka moment, Cummings refines the core message to "Take Back Control", thus positioning Vote Leave as the historical status quo, and Remain as the "change" option. Cummings meets and hires Canadian Zack Massingham, co-founder of AggregateIQ, who offers to build a database using social media tools of voters who are not on the UK electoral register but are inclined to vote to leave. In a separate sequence, Arron Banks meets Robert Mercer, who discusses the potential of social media database tools.

The film contrasts the progress of the two campaigns. Cummings, using the AggregateIQ database, brings MP Douglas Carswell to Jaywick, a part of his constituency he did not know existed, where a couple articulate the destitution of their position.[8] Oliver, using the traditional focus-groups, and in a memorable scene, realises that his campaign has failed to understand the concerns of all UK voters, as a focus-group descends into a mass quarrel and a member breaks down crying "I'm sick of feeling like nothing, like I have nothing! Like I know nothing. Like I am nothing. I'm sick of it!".[8]

In the final stages, high-profile senior Tory MPs Michael Gove and Boris Johnson join the Vote Leave campaign emphasising the need to "Take Back Control", while Penny Mordaunt is shown on BBC raising concerns over the accession of Turkey. Gove and Johnson are shown as having some reticence over specific Vote Leave claims (e.g. £350 million for NHS, and 70 million potential Turkish emigrants) but are seen to overcome them. Craig Oliver conducts an emergency Tory-Labour Remain conference call with David Cameron and Peter Mandelson, while feeding his children in his kitchen, to express his concerns, however, each side blames the other.[8] The murder of MP Jo Cox is announced, and in a fictionalised chance encounter, Cummings and Oliver share a drink and discuss events, with Cummings saying: "The train coming down the tracks isn't the one that you expected. It's not the one that's advertised on the board. Well, tough. It isn't even the one that I imagined. But I accept it. And you can't stop it", and Oliver replying: "Be careful what you wish for. You won't be able to control it either".[8]

The film then jumps to the referendum polling day on 23 June 2016, the announcement of the result and after a victory speech, Cummings quietly leaving the Vote Leave campaign office. The closing sequence returns to the pre-opening credits fictional future public inquiry, and Cummings outlining his disappointment at how the political system reacted post the Vote Leave victory, eventually walking out in disgust.




James Graham, the film's screenwriter, originally wrote a first draft focusing on David Cameron, the UK's prime minister during the vote. However, he then changed it to Dominic Cummings, the campaign director of the official designated Brexit-supporting group, Vote Leave.[9] In a Channel 4 News interview, Graham revealed that the film was based on the books All Out War: The Full Story of How Brexit Sank Britain's Political Class by Sunday Times political editor Tim Shipman, and Unleashing Demons: The Inside Story of Brexit by David Cameron's Downing Street communications director Craig Oliver, and on interviews with the campaign strategists involved, Cummings in particular.[10] Oliver acted as a consultant on the film.[11][9] In order to better play lead character Dominic Cummings, Benedict Cumberbatch visited him at his family home.[12]


The film was commissioned in May 2018 by Channel 4 with Benedict Cumberbatch cast to play Dominic Cummings.[13] Filming commenced in June with the supporting cast set, including Rory Kinnear and John Heffernan.[14]


Critical response[edit]

Critic reviews were generally positive after the 7 January 2019 broadcast of the film in the UK by Channel 4. On review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds an approval rating of 80% based on 54 reviews, with an average rating of 7.32/10. The website's critical consensus reads, "With acerbic wit and a mesmerizingly eccentric performance from Benedict Cumberbatch, Brexit energetically renders recent history with unflinching poise."[15] Metacritic reports a weighted average score of 73 out of 100 based on 12 critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews".[16]

Asa Bennet of The Daily Telegraph gave the film five out of five stars, calling it a "thrilling romp through the referendum" and praised Cumberbatch's performance as Cummings, comparing it to his role as Sherlock Holmes in the TV series Sherlock.[17] Will Gompertz of the BBC gave the film four out of five stars and called the film "a very watchable TV movie that has a clear structure and a well-defined plot" and called Cumberbatch's performance "compelling".[18] Carol Midgley of The Times gave the film four out of five stars stating, "Brexit without the boring bits is a blast".[19] The Independent's Hugh Montgomery gave the film four out of five stars and praised Cumberbatch's acting, comparing it to both Sherlock and The Social Network.[20] Peter Crawley in the Irish Times gave the film five out of five stars and called it a "political tragicomedy with the verve of a tech thriller", and that "it drips with great British humour".[21] Suzi Feay in the Financial Times gave the film five out of five stars calling it: "An exhilarating, almost farcical dramatisation of 2016's successful Vote Leave campaign and its Machiavellian director", and "The only hindrance to enjoyment is the fact that we are all now living in the chaotic reality dreamt up by the diamond-eyed ideologue".[22]

Lucy Mangan of The Guardian was very critical of the film, only awarding it two out of five stars, and calling it "superficial, irresponsible TV" and criticised the depiction of Nigel Farage and Arron Banks as "cartoonish buffoons instead of dangerous shit-stirrers".[23]

Other commentators[edit]

British playwright and non-fiction author Sarah Helm, praised the film in The Guardian saying: "Nor has any piece of journalism bettered Graham's focus-group scene in portraying how the poison of Brexit has set ordinary people against each other, or exposed how easily our feeble leaders were led by opportunistic apparatchiks".[24] Alice Jones in The New York Times said that "Brexit Is Dividing Britain. So Is a Brexit Movie".[9] Charles Moore wrote in The Daily Telegraph that the film "told a story of forgotten people finding their voice".[25]

People portrayed[edit]

On 4 January 2019, Matthew Elliott, played in the film by John Heffernan, wrote an article about the film in the Financial Times summarising that "Whatever happens, the 2016 campaign marked an important moment, and the film captures it well".[26] Cummings' wife, Mary Wakefield wrote in The Spectator that Cumberbatch's portrayal of her husband even fooled their own son.[27] The Guardian quoted Peter Mandelson (briefly portrayed on a conference call), as saying "The film is extraordinary", and "It presses every button and captures Britain at the time".[11]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Pemberton, Daniel [@DANIELPEMBERTON] (17 December 2017). "So here's something else I did recently with the brilliant Toby Haynes who directed #USSCallister episode of #BlackMirror." (Tweet). Retrieved 21 December 2018 – via Twitter. |date= mismatches calculated date from |number= by two or more days (help)
  2. ^ "Brexit: The Uncivil War (15)". British Board of Film Classification. 18 December 2018. Retrieved 9 January 2018.
  3. ^ "Brexit: The Uncivil War on Channel 4: Everything you need to know about the new drama starring Benedict Cumberbatch". Radio Times. 4 January 2019. Retrieved 4 January 2019.
  4. ^ "First look trailer for Brexit drama starring Benedict Cumberbatch | Channel 4". Retrieved 18 December 2018.
  5. ^ "Controversial Brexit drama starring Benedict Cumberbatch to air on Channel 4 before its US broadcast on HBO". Radio Times. Retrieved 18 December 2018.
  6. ^ Asa Bennett (8 January 2019). "Brexit: Uncivil War – Who is Dominic Cummings and how realistic is Channel 4's drama?". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 11 January 2019.
  7. ^ "71st Emmy Awards Nominees and Winners". Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. Retrieved 14 April 2020.
  8. ^ a b c d Nelson, Fraser (7 January 2019). "The three scenes from Ch4's Brexit film that show why Remain lost". The Spectator. Retrieved 10 January 2019.
  9. ^ a b c Jones, Alice (10 January 2019). "Brexit Is Dividing Britain. So Is a Brexit Movie". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 10 January 2019.
  10. ^ "Interview with writer James Graham for Brexit: The Uncivil War – Channel 4".
  11. ^ a b Moss, Stephen (7 January 2019). "'They've turned Michael Gove into a vacillating fool' – politicians on Brexit: The Uncivil War". The Guardian. Retrieved 10 January 2019.
  12. ^ Miller, Julie (14 December 2018). "See Benedict Cumberbatch as a Bald Brexit Mastermind in New HBO Film". Vanity Fair. Retrieved 10 January 2019.
  13. ^ White, Peter (16 May 2018). "Benedict Cumberbatch To Star In British Brexit Drama For Channel 4". Deadline.
  14. ^ White, Peter (25 June 2018). "'Skyfall's Rory Kinnear & 'The Crown's John Heffernan Join Benedict Cumberbatch's C4 Drama 'Brexit'". Deadline.
  15. ^ "Brexit (2019)". Rotten Tomatoes. Fandango Media. Retrieved 1 August 2020.
  16. ^ "Brexit – TV Show Reviews". Metacritic. CBS Interactive. Retrieved 1 September 2019.
  17. ^ Bennett, Asa (28 December 2018). "Brexit: The Uncivil War ★★★★★: Benedict Cumberbatch is superb in this thrilling romp through the referendum". The Daily Telegraph. ISSN 0307-1235. Retrieved 8 January 2019.
  18. ^ Gompertz, Will (5 January 2019). "Review: Brexit – The Uncivil War ★★★★☆". BBC News. Retrieved 8 January 2019.
  19. ^ Carol Midgley (8 January 2019). "TV review: Brexit: The Uncivil War ★★★★☆". The Times. Retrieved 8 January 2019.
  20. ^ Montgomery, Hugh (28 December 2018). "Brexit: The Uncivil War first-look review – An engrossing second draft of history. ★★★★☆". The Independent. Retrieved 8 January 2019.
  21. ^ Peter Crawley (8 January 2019). "Brexit: The Uncivil War drips with great British humour. ★★★★★". Irish Times. Retrieved 11 January 2019.
  22. ^ Suzi Feay (4 January 2019). "Channel 4's Brexit: The Uncivil War starring Benedict Cumberbatch — review. ★★★★★". Financial Times. Retrieved 12 January 2019.
  23. ^ Mangan, Lucy (7 January 2019). "Brexit: The Uncivil War review – superficial, irresponsible TV. ★★☆☆☆". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 8 January 2019.
  24. ^ Sarah Helm (10 January 2019). "Brexit: The Uncivil War proves Hamlet right: the play's the thing". The Guardian. Retrieved 12 January 2019.
  25. ^ Charles Moore (11 January 2019). "Brexit, the uncivil war, rages on because our MPs continue to ignore the voters". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 12 January 2019.
  26. ^ Matthew Elliott (4 January 2019). "Vote Leave's Matthew Elliott on Channel 4's Brexit: The Uncivil War". Financial Times. Screenwriter James Graham has turned the campaign into a compelling story — and nailed my mannerisms
  27. ^ Mary Wakefield (19 December 2018). "Benedict Cumberbatch on playing my husband, Dominic Cummings". The Spectator.

External links[edit]