I’m not going to lie to you –This England it’s not an easy watch.
I thought I was going to watch a biodrama about fallen Prime Minister Boris Johnson. But it is largely a biodrama of the pandemic through the eyes of the prime minister and his cabinet.
That doesn’t make it any less interesting, but there are those who may not be ready to face it yet. Heck, I can barely bring myself to watch The Hundred with Andy Lee because it reminds me too much of Zoom.
But make no mistake, Kenneth Branagh as Boris Johnson is creepy. The voice, the makeup, the walk…it’s a rewarding performance.
The story begins with Johnson’s campaign to ‘Get Brexit Done’ and a quick win for the Conservative Party in 2019. Initially, directors Julian Jarrold and Michael Winterbottom wisely hold Branagh in long shot to lull you into a dramatic acceptance of this Prime Minister television . By the time you approach Boris you have already become accustomed to his delivery and style.
His partner Carrie, is played by Ophelia Lovibond, who devours the newspapers and tends to their dog when not entrusting him to a consultant to walk him.
The prime minister’s chief adviser is Dominic Cummings (Simon Paisley Day) who leads his staff with such ferocity that he constantly hangs a sword of Damacles over their heads. Another key role is Matt Hancock as Andrew Buchan as Secretary of State for Health and Social Care.
This England lands like a docudrama as pandemic news footage weaves between scenes of drama at 10 Downing Street. They emerge via a wet market in Wuhan and some early concerns from the British as they watch China retaliate with draconian measures. In January 2020, the market was closed and China is literally building a hospital in days.
“We’re keeping an eye on him,” Boris is told by his team.
In a few weeks, cases emerge in Italy, but the British are initially confident that they have the situation under control.
There are many meetings in this story, whether as the Committee on Civil Emergencies aka COBRA, Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies or the Cabinet. Meanwhile, Boris spends time with Carrie, who gave birth nine months after taking office (!), constantly leaving messages for his absent adult children and brilliantly quoting Shakespeare. Who knew Branagh would do something like this in a messy white wig and makeup, rather than dolled up like Hamlet?
By February predictions are that 80% of Brits will have been infected and 500,000 will have died, but procrastinates on whether a full lockdown is really needed while the advice is to avoid handshakes (something Boris can’t even keep up with himself) and wash regularly. But it’s hard not to feel sympathy for these dealing with the unknown, and hindsight nearly three years later from the comfort of an iso-couch is an almost wonderful thing.
It is important to note that in episode two the drama includes frontline workers, those hardworking NHS workers who, like ours in Australia, were dealing with limited PPE and skyrocketing staff numbers and cases. Again, these scenes are dealing with stuff.
History shows that Johnson’s tenure would be dogged by poor decision-making, particularly at social gatherings while ordinary citizens were locked down. Shakespeare may not have created scenes that reflected such modern issues, but he consistently faced failures in leadership.
While this may be “dry” in its style, This England it is very convincing. The behind-the-door recreations of government are expansive and realistic, anchored by Branagh in a superb performance. But it won’t be fun for everyone.
It occurs to me that when the musical Hair came out in 1979 as a really great movie, there were those who said it was too soon and those who said it was too late.
This England he may be faced with a similar dilemma, but Branagh’s star will shine nonetheless.
This England airs Thursdays at 8.30pm on BBC First.