Brexit (2019) ☆☆☆(3/4): Behind Brexit

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When I encountered the trailer of British TV movie “Brexit”, I wondered whether it was too early to make a film about Brexit. After all, Britain and its government and people are still struggling with the ongoing consequence of that catastrophic referendum in June 2016 even at this point, and the historical significance of Brexit has not yet been solidified enough for us to see an emerging big picture surrounding it.

Anyway, I am happy to tell you that “Brexit” turns out to be fairly entertaining and thought-provoking despite several inherent weak aspects including its understandably narrow perspective. While it is compelling to watch how a major social/political paradigm shift happened via the Vote Leave campaign for the 2016 referendum in Britain, it is also unnerving to observe its eventual ramifications, and you may become worried a lot about what may be possible in a brave new world to come.

The story of the movie mainly revolves around Dominic Cummings (Benedict Cumberbatch), who was the main political strategist for the Vote Leave campaign at that time. Although he is reluctant when his fellow political strategist Matthew Elliot (John Heffernan) asks him to supervise the Vote Leave campaign, he eventually agrees to head the campaign once Elliot promises him the total control of the campaign without any interference, and he soon embarks on searching for any possible way to beat the Vote Remain campaign, which is going to be headed by Craig Oliver (Rory Kinnear).

After discerning that his campaign needs to target millions of people who are usually not so interested in voting, Cummings decides to try something quite different. Instead of a traditional campaign strategy depending on posters and phone-calls/leaflets delivered by local members of parliament, he and his strategy team members are going to focus on finding and then luring potential Leave voters via new digital technologies, and he soon contacts AggregateIQ, a computer software company which has built a massive database from the daily online activities of countless social media tool users. Through the database of AggregateIQ, it is possible to find all the potential Leave voters around the country within a short period, and it is also quite possible to push them further to the upcoming referendum.

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Well aware of the importance of a simple but effective slogan, Cummings tries to find the right slogan, and, by coincidence, he comes to have a small but brilliant idea on improving the original slogan. All he has to do is inserting ‘back’ into the original slogan, and the resulting new slogan, “Take Back Control”, turns out to be as hugely effective as, say, “Make America Great Again”.

In the meantime, as pushing the campaign in his own way, Cummings frequently clash with Elliot and other main figures of the Leave Campaign. They are not so happy when Cummings refuses to be associated with Nigel Farage (Paul Ryan) and his UK Independence Party (UKIP) party for a strategic reason, and they try to persuade Cummings to step down from his position at one point, but Cummings adamantly sticks to his position. He even fires the chairman of the Board for Vote Leave, and then he keeps going his way as usual.

In the end, nobody complains when it gradually turns out that Cummings was right from the beginning. Once the database is installed by a bunch of technicians from AggregateIQ, he and his campaign team can gather the information on heaps of potential Leave voters who have felt disfranchised and resentful about the government for years, and then they induce more fear and resentment among these voters for the success of their campaign. As sensing the consequent change in public opinion, several prominent politicians including Boris Johnson (Richard Goulding) and Michael Gove (Oliver Maltman) come to support the Leave Vote campaign in public, and Oliver and his Vote Remain campaign team begin to realize that something is going quite wrong, especially after he witnesses the disastrous outcome of one focus group meeting.

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As busily juggling many different story elements together, the screenplay by James Graham, which is based on “Based on All Out War: The Full Story of How Brexit Sank Britain’s Political Class” by Tim Shipman and “Unleashing Demons: The Inside Story of Brexit” by Oliver, does not let us get confused at all, and the movie steadily maintains its narrative momentum under director Toby Haynes’ competent direction. Although it tumbles during its prologue and epilogue, the movie mostly succeeds in delivering enough drama and information to us, and it was also anchored well by another strong performance from Benedict Cumberbatch, who, as shown from BBC TV series “Sherlock”, can effortlessly play a smart, confident guy with antisocial aspects.

In case of the other performers surrounding Cumberbatch, they are less prominent in comparison, but Rory Kinnear has a memorable scene when his character happens to come across Cummings later in the story. As Oliver and Cummings discuss with each other on what may come next in the future, Kinnear and Cumberbatch generate a moment of quiet intensity as two men in opposing positions, and that is certainly one of several highpoints in the film.

On the whole, “Brexit” did its job as well as intended although it inevitably feels rather incomplete in the end. As reflected by what is told to us at the end of the story, the historical narrative of Brexit continues to unfold with more facts and consequences to behold, and we will probably come to see its real historical lesson after several more years. Will there be a sequel examining that?

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