“We want to return to a time when we knew our place, when things made sense, fictional or not,” Benedict Cumberbatch says provocatively in Brexit, capturing both the essence of the political turmoil the UK has been in since the referendum passed and the HBO Films offering about that vote which debuts tonight.
The Emmy winner and Oscar nominee’s spirited portrayal of anti-European Union strategist Dominic Cummings fuels the rollicking James Graham-penned movie that seeks to tell the story of the man behind the successful campaign to get the UK out of Europe. While there are a several fictionalized aspects of the Toby Haynes–directed Brexit that requires leaps of narrative faith, and a lot of the illegal real-life moves remain in the shadows, I called the 92-minute result “a must-see on a number of levels” in my review earlier this week.
In examining a manipulated populist outbreak that has since had tremulous effects on this side of the Atlantic, Graham and Haynes have taken a populist approach that ensures to entertain, educated and engage viewers regardless of how closely they follow UK news. Certainly, coming off a week where Prime Minister Theresa May’s exit plan went down to historic defeat in Britain’s Parliament and the U.S. faces the prospect of its shutdown of the federal government becoming the longest ever, Brexit the movie seems perfectly timed.
As the chaos continued in London and Washington DC, I spoke with Haynes and Graham to discuss the film, its construction, intentions, ramifications in the UK and USA, and about whether American audiences get it.
Acclaimed playwright Graham also discussed how members of his own family voted “leave” in 2016 and the benefits of working with Cumberbatch. The screenwriter also answered criticism of the drama that he has received in Britain, where the then-titled Brexit: The Uncivil War premiered earlier this month on Channel 4.
DEADLINE:It might be true of any week the past few years, but certainly having Brexit air on HBO after this extraordinary week of political chaos in Britain, with defeats for Theresa May and her rival Jeremy Corbyn, the careening effects of the government shutdown continuing here in America, more bombshell allegations about Trump and Russia that may actually turn out to be real fake news, and turmoil in France, it’s unbelievable if it wasn’t now the norm. Does the blast radius of Brexit proper actually have an end point for you?
GRAHAM: I certainly would agree that something extraordinary is happening across the western world and that people like Dominic Cummings, who’s played by Benedict, identify that mood. Dominic would argue that there’s a mood, certainly, in the United Kingdom, that’s been bubbling away for many generations, many decades. There’s an anger about the unspoken aspect of globalization, of a change in domestic policy, whereby certain communities, as they saw it, were being ignored. There was an anger there, and that’s something that the referendum provides an outlet for that anger, and you can see that, as you described. That goes up towards Trump and across Western Europe.
DEADLINE: So, having portrayed the minutia of British politics in Coalition, what drew you to tell the tale of Dominic Cummings within the broad strokes of what happened in the 2016 referendum?
GRAHAM: What’s happening now with Brexit is an existential crisis about democracy and about who we are. We are the longest unbroken democracy on the planet, but we are free-falling into a crisis that we can’t control, and it’s unprecedented.
Like you, I watched Theresa May this week say she’s going to try and wrestle this into some kind of sense, which is extraordinary because British politics is meant to be quite boring and quite stable.
DEADLINE: Which can make turning it into a film quite challenging…
GRAHAM: Well, yes, and the reason why I really enjoyed working with Toby on this is because another director may have approached this script by going, this is terribly serious. They would have said this is very important, these issues, and we need to handle it with kid gloves and make it really sort of an earnest, proper political drama with creaking footsteps and old gray men. Toby’s aesthetic and approach was always more populist than that and actually replicated for me the chaos and the populism of that summer of 2016.
DEADLINE: Toby, how do you think American audiences are going to react to the film with the events of the past few days?
HAYNES: Well, we find it a pretty baffling subject, and I live in the country it directly affects. So, I can’t imagine what it must be like for an American audience looking at our news cycle at the moment and trying to get their heads around what we’re doing and what’s going on. It must just seem like, you know, just a huge amount of stress and self-inflicted, state-level confusion.
DEADLINE:Speaking of confusion, there are some fictionalized elements in Brexit. You move kind of the beginning of the film ahead to an imaginary 2020. There’s a political inquiry that Cummings has never actually appeared at. There’s the meeting with him and “Remain” strategist Craig Oliver that never actually happened. Now, of course, as a television critic, I understand dramatic license, but are you worried for American HBO viewers that these fictional leaps of faith may confuse an already real-life confusing situation?
GRAHAM: No, not at all, because an American audience, like a British audience, are actually far more intelligent than the commentators give them credit for. So, every audience knows what the proposition of a film like this is. That we’re not journalists, but we’re trying to find a different kind of truth, and so the reason why the Dominic Cummings inquiry was placed in the film is because there’s a really serious question about the lack of accountability from people who have not yet been held to account in front of Parliament.
DEADLINE: But that’s exactly the point that gets blurred isn’t it, by presenting such an inquiry in the film from the not-too-distant future?
GRAHAM: Well, for me, the joy of drama, the joy of doing this film is that, for whatever reason, and I’ve got no idea why, most journalists have not had access to Dominic Cummings. He’s refused interviews since the referendum results. He’s not appeared before a House of Commons inquiry. Yet, for whatever reason, he allowed a playwright to come and visit him, and then the actor playing him to come and visit him, because we aspire to a different kind of access to him that isn’t necessarily the best of good journalism, but probing the truth.
DEADLINE: But isn’t that exactly the best of journalism, to seek out and report the truth?
GRAHAM: Yes, but we want to understand it on a different level, and why we’re so thrilled about the result. If you look at what Toby shot in that moment, that close-up of Dominic in those final moments, that is the only access that a mainstream audience gets to Dominic Cummings Now, I imagine an American audience has no idea who he is, and they shouldn’t, because a British audience has no idea who Dominic Cummings is, truthfully, before our film. Look, we are the only film to put his argument on camera and have him prosecuted, So I understand about the criticism about the choices we made in that regard, but so far, that is the only testament we have of him, and I think it’s really valid.
HAYNES: A friend of mine, when Trump was elected after the Brexit result for us, said, and I don’t know whether he was repeating something from somewhere else, but he just said it feels like we’re on the last disc of the box set of the Earth. And, I think that’s really where drama can really help because it can join all the dots for people in a way that is digestible. That was, you know, one of the of missions of this film and one of the challenges of it.
DEADLINE: Certainly, you went for a very different look than the usual staid talking heads and talking points political drama of people walking down halls…
HAYNES: (laughs) I think I took my cue from a line in the script that James wrote where he makes the connection that the anthem of the EU is Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, which is also the theme music from A Clockwork Orange. Suddenly that made sense to the whole thing for me. I regard (Stanley) Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange as a great British satire about an anti-establishment figure, and the corruption of the state, and so it had a lot of cues for me visually.
DEADLINE: With those cues, and the real-life plots that we saw brewing in the harsh defeat that Theresa May suffered in Parliament this week, the confidence vote she survived and the ongoing stalemate that plagues Britain as that hard deadline of exiting the EU at the end of March comes, do you guys see a sequel to the story you’ve told in Brexit?
GRAHAM: Obviously, what we don’t know is what those voters now think about the aftermath of that vote. We can’t yet measure what the 17.4 million people who voted to leave, we don’t know how they feel about how it’s going. They may be feeling really disappointed, and angry, or let down, like they were lied to, but I don’t know.
DEADLINE: But, underneath all the online manipulations and empty promises, those feelings of anger and being left out of the process are real, and often treated like an afterthought in all this fallout…
GRAHAM: Absolutely. I come from a working-class community in Nottinghamshire. It was a mining town. A lot of my family members voted to leave the EU, and certainly a lot of my old friends voted to leave. Now, I voted to remain, but I won’t disparage people who thought differently to me.
For me, I guess it wasn’t always about asking whether it was right or wrong to leave the EU, about whether a vote to leave was right, whether to remain was right. There were bigger questions there about who we are and about how our politics has changed.
DEADLINE: In many ways that it all made clear in that scene with Benedict’s Dominic and Rory Kinnear’s Craig Oliver sharing a drink over the aftermath. Now that scene never happened, but was that in part your point of having it?
GRAHAM: Well, first, when you have an actor like Rory Kinnear and Benedict Cumberbatch doing that scene in the pub, you’re obviously very blessed as a writer.
But yes, there’s a reason why I think people have focused on that scene. It’s because I think, for me, and I think for you, Toby, as well, that scene really that projects what we think the film was actually about. It’s not about a checklist of all the things that happened in that campaign, about data, and about funding, and about this, and about that. It’s about something much bigger. It’s an existential question about one of the oldest democracies on the planet really struggling to find itself and to have a healthy debate, if it can anymore.
DEADLINE: Do you worry that having an actor who is venerated as Benedict could overwhelm the material?
GRAHAM: I think the only way that we were going attract big audiences and get our message out there was by having a star like Benedict in that role, that’s clear. At the same time, he didn’t want to bring any baggage in when he was working on the role.
DEADLINE: How do you mean?
GRAHAM: Well, we were incredibly privileged to have, you know, somebody of his talent in our film, and I think that he took it very seriously and brought a lot of integrity into realizing Dominic as a human being and not just sort of hate figure, which was vital.
DEADLINE: With all that, James how do you think the Leave side were able to pull off a triumph that has now descended into tragedy in many ways?
GRAHAM: In the same way that you would sell a shoe or a hotel, you find people who are sympathetic to that particular message, and then you activate them into action, i.e., buying a hotel room or voting for a political party, and the Leave side was just much better at finding those people who were sympathetic.
And so, I think it is a very serious question to ask about how we measure, and it’s really hard to measure how we measure the impact of digital advertising in our new politics, because we don’t really know the impact it’s having, and it’s completely unregulated, and it’s a really serious issue, and to your more interesting point, I totally agree. This has been the most extraordinary week of our parliament modern history, and in a way, to me, that’s the value of, I hope, this drama. Obviously, we face questions constantly about going, when is the right time?
DEADLINE: Then, let me ask, is this the right time for Brexit the movie or is it a snapshot in the dark?
GRAHAM: When is the right time to do a drama like this? Can we ever know the full story about Brexit? And the answer is, no, of course we can’t. This story is going to go on for years and decades, I know.