The week in which Britain descended into political chaos, with Parliament soundly rejecting Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal one day and declaring confidence in her leadership the next, feels like a good time to ask how the hell did we get into this mess? Enter Benedict Cumberbatch, baring several inches of forehead, to explain how and why Britain went mad in Brexit, a U.K.-U.S. co-production that airs on HBO this weekend.
Cumberbatch plays Dominic Cummings, the socially awkward political strategist who led the victorious Vote Leave campaign in the 2016 Brexit referendum. A bridge-burner incapable of disguising the contempt he feels for career politicians, Cummings, who had thoroughly alienated the political establishment by the time he was tapped for the job, is brought on as an “attack dog,” willing to wage a no-holds-barred fight with no thought to potential post-referendum career consequences. In writer James Graham’s telling, at least, it was the smartest—and potentially most destructive—appointment in modern British politics.
Graham and director Toby Haynes made a brilliant choice to focus on Cummings, who’s an obscure figure even in Britain. Politically engaged viewers already familiar with the Brexit narrative—the people who would watch a movie like this—need to see something they don’t already know; otherwise it’s just a star-studded rehashing of overexposed news. In Graham’s version of history, more recognizable figures like Nigel Farage (Paul Ryan—not that one) and Boris Johnson (Richard Goulding) are reduced to pawns in Cummings’ political chess game.
Unlike dramatizations of global events that center on the formation of alliances—David Hare’s Stuff Happens, about George W. Bush’s courtship of Tony Blair in the run-up to the Iraq war, or Peter Morgan’s The Deal, about the alleged agreement made between Blair and Gordon Brown for the leadership of the Labour Party—Brexit is about a political rupture. Or several. Given the mutual love affair between Farage and the media—the former stockbroker was as much of a newspaper fixture as the racing results in the decade leading up to the referendum—Cummings knows that Farage and his UKIP colleagues will blow the immigration dog whistle that offends cosmopolitan elites but appeals to poor and xenophobic voters, and that those people will hear it. Cummings’ first task is to win the designation as the official leave campaign, sure in the knowledge that even without that imprimatur Farage will continue to spend millions of pounds of boorish Europhobe Arron Banks’ money to secure the “easy” Brexit votes. That would leave Cummings and co. free to spread a more palatable message and to direct their funds to a new kind of campaigning that focuses on algorithms and social media.
The leave side’s use of data and microtargeting—Cummings’ Vote Leave worked with AggregateIQ, while Banks’ and Farage’s Leave.EU used Cambridge Analytica—is presented as ethically shady but tactically brilliant. The remain campaign, with its focus groups and traditional election tactics, was at a huge disadvantage; it didn’t know that the 3 million potential voters Vote Leave targeted most precisely even existed.
The film doesn’t ignore these data shenanigans, but Cumberbatch’s Cummings is such a magisterial strategist it doesn’t seem unthinkable that leave could have won without them. Although the word is never used, Cummings seems to be somewhere on the autism spectrum: He’s sensitive to noise, uncomfortable in large gatherings, and he often retreats to a supply closet where he does his best thinking (and delivers occasional Francis Urquhart/Frank Underwood–style direct-to-camera addresses). The leave campaign’s smartest moves—a “battle bus” festooned with the message, “We send the EU £350 million a week—let’s fund our NHS instead” or adding the word back to the campaign’s slogan “Let’s take back control”—are framed as products of Cummings’ brilliant mind. The Vote Leave team was staffed by experienced hacks and had Cabinet ministers and MPs in its ranks, but in Brexit at least, Cummings is the lone provider of winning insights.
He enrages the euroskeptic MPs who support Vote Leave, and that’s fine with him. To them he’s a showoff endangering a project they’ve worked on for decades, but to him they’re a bunch of prima donnas who have nothing to show for all those years of labor. He manipulates Michael Gove and Boris Johnson, the best-known politicians associated with Vote Leave, placing them on his bus and imposing tight message control, also known as putting words in their mouths. Gove and Johnson aren’t universally loved—Gove is considered diffident and flip-floppy, while Johnson often lapses into a buffoonish caricature of himself—but both are canny former journalists respected for their intelligence. To British viewers at least, the message will be clear: Dominic Cummings is brash and unclubbable but absolutely diabolically brilliant.
Will all these British political maneuverings be comprehensible to American viewers? Absolutely. The costuming helps. Boorish “loadsamoney” businessman Banks is the kind of guy who wears a polo shirt and shorts while everyone around him is dressed for a fancy affair. Farage’s suspenders and fat-knotted tie brand him as a man on the make, while Cummings’ habit of showing up for TV interviews with his sweater inside out shows him to be anything but.
Despite impending fatherhood, Cummings never seems to develop a taste for stability.
“Change is exciting,” he insists to the end. As his team celebrates when the referendum results are announced, he packs up his belongings and heads for home alone, having unleashed who knows what on the world. That he’s carrying a box is one of the few heavy-handed symbols in 90 minutes of shocking but surprisingly entertaining political theater.