LONDON—Early on in Brexit, Channel 4 and HBO’s almost inappropriately entertaining movie about Britain’s 2016 vote to leave the European Union, we flash back in time to 1975, when ordinary citizens are being interviewed about another historic referendum on Europe. “I don’t really know what I’m voting for,” one voter sheepishly confesses. “I don’t really see what good it’s going to do us,” another adds, somewhat huffily.
Here, in a nutshell, is the perpetual nature of Britain’s relationship with the EU. It’s confused. Cranky. Doggedly pessimistic. And things have only gone downhill since then. In the two and a half years since 52 percent of the nation voted to leave the world’s largest trading bloc, the debate over Brexit has become the Groundhog Day no one can wake up from, with its recriminations and unsolvable paradoxes and parliamentary chaos. Even the reality that Britain is lurching painfully but certainly toward financial free fall if no agreement for leaving emerges before March 29 hasn’t shifted the political mechanisms out of gridlock. It’s a polarizing, infuriating, exhausting mess.
How, you might ask, does someone make a decent movie out of that?
It helps that the director of Brexit is Toby Haynes, who’s handled similarly tense and nightmarish scenarios in episodes of Black Mirror and Sherlock. The inscrutably magnetic starring presence of Benedict Cumberbatch is another mitigating factor. But really, the man pulling magic from national meltdown is James Graham. The genial 36-year-old playwright is beyond rising-star status at this point, having seen two of his plays run simultaneously in the West End last year: Ink, a drama about a young Rupert Murdoch that arrives on Broadway in April, and Labour of Love, which charted the state of one of Britain’s main political parties over 27 years. Graham, The Guardian’s Michael Billington wrote in his review of the latter, “has a rare capacity to recreate pivotal moments from our past.” But as Brexit demonstrates, he also has an uncanny gift for writing history in real time, tuning out the noise and lasering in on the most vital elements of the story.