Channel 4's Brexit movie, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, is a terrible idea. Earlier this year, Cumberbatch signed up to play the part of Dominic Cummings, leader of the official Vote Leave campaign during the 2016 Brexit referendum, which ultimately resulted in the United Kingdom choosing to leave the European Union. The EU referendum is a topic that has not only dominated the news over the past two years but also become a key point of interest in the entertainment industry.
The Brexit movie is written by James Graham, an award-winning writer responsible for political plays such as This House and Ink, and it's based on books written by the Sunday Times political editor Tim Shipman and Downing Street's former director of communications, Craig Oliver. The film was one of the first projects signed off by Channel 4's new director of programs, Ian Katz, who described it as a "knotty, topical" drama. But it's becoming increasingly clear that this film is a mistake.
The key problem is that, although the referendum took place two years ago, the story is still developing. Earlier this year, the Electoral Commission referred both the official Vote Leave campaign and its UKIP-centered rival Leave.EU to the Metropolitan Police for investigation. There have been concerns that political sensitivities have hampered this, although the police insist that isn't the case. Meanwhile, major Brexit donor Arron Banks has recently been referred to the National Crime Agency for "suspected criminal offences" during the referendum. The Bristol-based businessman donated a staggering £12 million to pro-Brexit causes in cash, loans, and services. He's officially the single biggest donor in British political history, but the source of that funding is a matter of dispute - and even, as of this week, criminal investigation. All this has profound implications upon the script. Is it even possible to accurately depict what happened during the referendum at this time, when so much remains unknown?
Meanwhile, in July, the Daily Beast obtained a draft copy of the script. They took it to insiders from the campaign, who identified a wide range of issues - from entirely fictional scenes (including one in which Nigel Farage and Arron Banks took part in a highly unlikely tennis match) to a failure to understand the crucial role "big data" played in the campaign. That's particularly surprising, given a lot of critical media attention has focused on that very point; Carol Cadwalladr, a Guardian columnist, has shone a very critical light upon this, leading to an international scandal involving Facebook and Cambridge Analytica. Meanwhile, according to the Daily Beast, the script even involves "the total invention of conspiratorial plotting that could never have taken place." That last point becomes even more problematic given the current ongoing criminal investigations. If the movie airs while these investigations are still in progress, then Channel 4 could be open to a lawsuit for prejudicing a potential trial.
Politically inspired films like this can be tremendously valuable, drawing public attention to a side of the story that's known by those who closely follow politics but that the average person on the street is unaware of. Unfortunately, that value is diminished when the full information is still unknown and when events are represented so inaccurately. The referendum may have happened two years ago, but it still seems far too soon to properly evaluate it in this form.
It's also worth asking just what the Brexit movie will add to the national debate. Channel 4 currently hopes to air Brexit shortly before the UK leaves the European Union, on March 29, 2019. The British public was split almost 50-50 during the referendum itself - the Leave campaign won by only 3 percent - and there's no sign this polarization has lessened. Just a fortnight ago, 700,000 people took to the streets of London to march against Brexit, a sign that opposition hasn't lessened. Dialogue between the two sides - who criticize one another as "Brextremists" on one side and "Remoaners" on the other - is still bitter and frustrated. The fundamental challenge facing the UK is how to come together as a nation once again, when vast swathes of the population have such a different vision of what their country should be and how it should relate to the rest of the world. It's difficult to see how the Brexit movie would help.
Brexit is expected to air in early 2019.