Brexit Is Dividing Britain. So Is a Brexit Movie. | Modern Society of USA

Brexit Is Dividing Britain. So Is a Brexit Movie.

Brexit Is Dividing Britain. So Is a Brexit Movie.

LONDON — If James Graham has learned one thing from writing his latest political drama, it is this: “Brexit sends reasonable people mad,” he said. “You are stepping into an arena where normal rules don’t apply.”

That drama, “Brexit: The Uncivil War,” a TV movie about the 2016 referendum in which Britain voted to leave the European Union, was broadcast in the country on Monday and debuts on HBO in the United States on Jan. 19. The show’s making was unusually fraught, plagued by the leaks, squabbles and contradictory briefings that also characterize British politics.

First, in July, an early draft of the script was leaked and commentators rushed to mock it and question its truthfulness. Stephen K. Bannon, President Trump’s former chief strategist and a vocal supporter of Brexit, weighed in, branding the unfinished work “a clown show” and “a comic-book fantasy.”

Then, in December, HBO shared a trailer for the movie, starring a balding Benedict Cumberbatch as Dominic Cummings, the director of the official “Leave” campaign. Uproar, once more.

The playwright said he knew immediately after the 2016 referendum that he wanted to write something about it. “Something went wrong in that campaign,” he said. “It was an angry, shouty, violent, toxic, awful way to conduct politics.”

The first draft focused on David Cameron, the prime minister who called the referendum, but as Graham continued writing his interest was piqued by Cummings, who was a government adviser before he ran the “Leave” campaign. It was Cummings who came up with the slogan “Take Back Control,” a short phrase that neatly encapsulated the campaign’s central ideas of immigration, sovereignty and disruption, and that struck a chord with voters.

“In most satisfying dramas, the protagonist is the biggest agent of change, and that is Cummings.” Graham said. “He’s a classic disrupter in the Murdoch vein.”

The writer began to imagine Cummings’s story as a classic sports movie, in which an underdog snatches gold.

“I worked really hard on the physicality,” Cumberbatch said in an interview. “He has quite a louche, casual, relaxed demeanor. His temperature, his inner meter, is very measured, he’s very calm. That’s a difficult thing to get right.”

The movie ends with the referendum result, although that was only the beginning of the real Brexit drama. Even for the seasoned political playwright, writing about the referendum even as the aftermath was unfolding presented a particular challenge.

“You want to not just present the facts in the order that they happened, but to aspire to a different level of poetry and the state of the nation — so that it feels more than the sum of its parts,” Graham said. “It’s the first draft of history, really.”

“Brexit: The Uncivil War” is the first major film to be made about Britain’s decision to leave the European Union. Theater was much faster to respond. “My Country: A Work in Progress,” a play by Carol Ann Duffy based on interviews with voters, and “Albion” by Mike Bartlett, a more oblique drama about what it means to be British in the Brexit era, ran in London theaters in 2017.

But theater is a different proposition from television, and it is more able to take risks, Graham said. “It’s less of a literal medium, so people see it as a piece of art. On screen, the grammar and language tend toward a more documentary-drama feel, but it patronizes an audience if you think they don’t know what you’re doing.”

Graham was born in northern England, and voted in the referendum to remain the European Union. Around 70 percent of voters in the area where he grew up voted to leave. “If any of my ‘Leave’-voting friends felt persecuted, then we’ve totally failed,” he said of the show. “It would be devastating to me to produce something that only attracts metropolitan, elite, ‘Remain’ voters.”

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