Brexit: The Movie is a very bad film, but not for the reasons you might think. And its red carpet gala premiere at the Leicester Square Odeon was a grim Boschian fever-dreamscape, but not in the way I'd expected. If you're reading this, chances are you're one of those awful smug metropolitan liberals, and you have a fairly decent idea what a Brexiter looks like. They're the bitter middle-aged, someone perched on the edge of civilisation in some declining seaside town where they collect snowglobes and prejudices and slowly crumble, blaming every problem they see on the feckless foreigners. And that person was there, complete with a 1970s moustache and flashing a T-shirt that read "it's time to break away" for the cameras. Inside the cinema, a man in a bright purple suit, a Ukip rosette, and chrome-shiny loafers stood a little gormlessly in the middle of the lobby, waiting for someone to interview him. But most of those who'd slipped on their bowties to watch a feature-length film about leaving the EU were reactionaries of a different timbre. The crowd was full of what appeared to be sixth-formers, gangly with pinched-in faces, still growing into their dinner jackets, the kind of kids who occasionally exclaim "huzzah!" without any sense of shame.
Between them were the potato-headed men with their scabbed, port-stained faces and their leathery wives, draped generously in tan cloth and ancestral privilege. "My word", one exclaimed after a jostling collision. "I can't have seen you since Balliol." Another chance encounter was more familiar. "I saw you in the Lords yesterday", said one potato to another. "There should be a special entrance here for peers of the realm." Not that it would have been any less crowded. A little further off, another peer of the realm, the 12th Baron Monson, was touting a spare ticket for £20. This is the face of our new social insurgency. Brexit is the upper classes in revolt.
The film itself tried to paint a different picture. It's the latest production from auteur Martin Durkin, best known for his controversial (and comprehensively debunked) 2007 documentary The Great Global Warming Swindle, and somewhat less known for an episode of NASA's Unexplained Files titled "Did We Nuke Jupiter?". This latest venture is a crowdfunded political broadcast (almost half of its £100,000 budget came from a single hedge fund manager); after the London premiere it's to be released free on the internet, chopped into easily tweetable slices, with the aim of convincing the undecided to vote us out of the EU come 23rd of June. Before the showing, Durkin jumped up onto the stage to give a few remarks. "There's a lot of you here," he said. "Hurrah!" The audience shouted "hurrah!" in return. I was in Hell.
It's a strange and slightly formless documentary. The first section has Durkin, like so many documentarians before him, "going on a journey": there he is staring pensively out the window of a Eurostar train as it whooshes through some generic continental countryside, here he is wandering between the blank facades of Brussels's European quarter. There are some ersatz-Adam Curtis stock footage sequences, grainy corridors full of bureaucrats, monochrome steelworks, to ominous music and admonishing narration. These are broken up by some Monty Python-inspired cartoon bits, and a few condescending little dramatisations. A French farmer is reading Le Monde with a string of garlic around his neck. A ramshackle European umbrella factory is represented by two skinny men in white vests and suspenders who spend their time pawing at a woman in a red dress; their Chinese competitors have straight backs, expressionless faces, and are very good at sums; and the EU bureaucrat whose nonsense regulations keep the first firm in business has his grey suit, his grey gloves, and some face-paint that definitely isn't blackface, even though it looks a whole lot like blackface.
But mostly, there are talking heads; a lot of talking heads. Nigel Farage makes his first appearance a few seconds in, looking like a greased-up newt; the audience bursts into wild applause, and there's more clapping every time he appears on screen, which fortunately means that you can't really hear what he's saying. There's James Delingpole. There's Melanie Philips. Weirdly, all the chinless squawkers are filmed from slightly below, making their heads look even more like puffed-up party balloons. Tony Blair gets boos and hisses. Footage of Ted Heath signing Britain into the European Economic Community has someone shouting "nonce!" Every rude swear was met with uproarious laughter. This isn't a documentary, it's panto.
With that said, the first section is actually quite convincing. Durkin is trying to blow the lid on the EU's democratic deficit, its unelected lawmakers, its bubbling mess of councils and commissions. He shows pictures of the bloodless functionaries who run our lives to some Bruxelloises on the street; nobody knows who they are.
But then it starts to go downhill. The story is this. Britain was once an economic powerhouse, a country that freed itself from "suffocating feudal regulation" while Europe was still practicing serfdom. In the 19th century, industry was allowed to thrive without government oversight; we smelted steel, we built ships, we traded with every corner of the world. But thanks to the two world wars, government started taking over the economy. (This is, strangely, presented as the worst thing that happened between 1914 and 1945.) Across Europe, a class of liberal, metropolitan, university-educated elites decided that they knew what was better for us than we did ourselves. And through the EU, they work to snuff out competition, unbalance the playing field, and sink us into a bog of arbitrary regulations to kill off the free enterprise that makes economies thrive. So we have to leave, and be great again on our own.
All this is presented as if it were a matter of undisputed common-sense truth, and it's possible that some people might be convinced. But there's more to this message than meets the eye. Most people are receptive to a story about little guys crushed by an indifferent state bureaucracy, but the little guys in the audience at Leicester Square were peers of the realm and Eton boys. There's an uncomfortable irony in a film raging against the stacked deck of European crony capitalism being screened to an audience full of hereditary aristocrats. They object to an EU elite telling us what to do – so they financed a feature documentary in which they tell us what to do, with their great leaders shot from slightly below, talking down to the mass of voters. The victims of EU regulation here aren't ordinary workers but businessmen and bosses. They complain that Brussels is interfering in their daily lives because they are the subjects of history, while the rest of us are supposed to cling tight to their coat-tails, pathetically grateful just to be given a job.
The film is marked by a profound historical illiteracy. Feudalism wasn't about government regulation, it was just a different form of class power. Brexit: The Movie portrays the 19th century as a glorious period of freedom, but for much of the population it was a nightmare. Life expectancy plummeted, children were mangled in factories, millions were killed in Britain's colonies by famine or massacre. Where there's been progress, it's been through the collective action of working people, fighting for cumbersome regulations like "the weekend" and "not poisoning us with lead paint".
Of course, right-wing ideologues are usually indifferent to stories of the vast suffering that took place under the British Empire. But it's possible to present it another way. The idea that there was a time of enlightened non-interference is a total fiction. When armed cavalry charged on a crowd of protesters at Peterloo, when British soldiers imposed a murderous rule on colonial India, when the wealthy uprooted people from their lands and forced them into workhouses to survive, what was that other than an unacceptable interference into people's daily lives? This is why the upper classes are so excited for Brexit. They see an undemocratic and unaccountable EU elite ruling by diktat and an unfounded sense of their own superiority, and they think: hey, that's our job.