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Brexit: The Uncivil War reveals the man behind the divisive campaign

Brexit: The Uncivil War, Monday.

Benedict Cumberbatch plays an arrogant maverick whose Brexit campaign threw the UK into chaos.

Brexit: what’s up with that? So much confusion, so much division. It’s like the UK has cut off its nose to spite its face and, as with the 2016 US presidential election, there is an underlying feeling that bad actors have used foul means to manipulate voters.

As the March 29 deadline looms for the UK to withdraw from the European Union (unless there’s an extension), the telemovie Brexit: The Uncivil War (UKTV, Sky 007, Monday, 8.30pm) sheds light on how the Leave campaign won the information war.

It focuses on a key player that no one has heard of, at least not here. Dominic Cummings was the campaign director for Vote Leave, the official organisation in favour of Brexit, and, in Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal, an arrogant maverick who ran a brilliant strategy of half-truths and xenophobia.

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It’s a complex story cleverly told, and writer James Graham, who’s known for his political stage plays, makes it satirical and slightly surreal, giving voice to Cummings’ inner life as well as his Sherlock-style whiteboard brainstorming.

Graham, says Cumberbatch, has “the skill to give a coherent, intriguing, thriller-like, narrative structure to complex events and characters without losing the integrity of his very deeply researched material”.

Cumberbatch sinks into the role of the ordinary, dishevelled genius and says he was attracted to playing “someone of this world”, although he says it is not up to him to make judgments.

“Dominic is a brilliant political strategist. But to judge his character or his motivation, that is not for me to do.”

Cumberbatch met Cummings before filming and says he was “incredibly helpful, trusting and transparent”.

The telemovie frames the two campaigns as new versus old. The Britain Stronger in Europe campaign (informally known as Remain) relies on focus groups, and its key message is “Jobs and the economy”. Meanwhile, Cummings’ eureka moment becomes the Leave campaign’s core message: “Take back control”.

On the surface, it seems he correctly judges the nation’s mood, whereas Remain (led by Craig Oliver, played by Rory Kinnear) does not.

However, Vote Leave starts targeting voters using data from obscure Canadian firm AggregateIQ (which had links to Cambridge Analytica) and makes its now-infamous claim that £350 million a week would be freed up for the NHS.

As March 29 approaches, however, Britons may have woken up to the lies too late.

This article was first published in the March 30, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.