This England

Rating :   ⭐️ ⭐️ 

Categorisation: Docudrama  

Availability: TVNZ on demand, Binge

Storyline: Michael Winterbottom’s six-part series begins in early 2019 with a triumphant Boris Johnson winning the UK election after promising to ‘Get Brexit Done’. But within a year of being at Number 10, he finds himself confronting the devastating realities of the global pandemic. We all know the story from here – the slogans, the prime ministerial disregard for public health protections that are epitomised by his unbridled hand-shaking, and the utterly inept responses that plunged the UK into an even greater crisis than might have been the case. Although the series begins with something more akin to the satirical political series, In the Thick of It, very soon the vicious consequences of the government’s incompetence become clear as more and more people contract and die from Covid-19. 

Film-craft: Winterbottom adopts a quick-fire journalistic TV news style in this docudrama, blending real news footage of national and international responses to the pandemic with fictional representations of Johnson, and his colleagues, family and friends. The rapid switching in scenes from Number 10 to the tragic human experiences in hospitals and care home, generates a palpable dramatic intensity. Each day of the unfolding pandemic we see on-screen statistics of reported cases in Britain, and the vastly greater ‘actual’ numbers, which I expect are provided for effect as they must surely be retrospective estimates. The series is often grim, and at times, gut-wrenching. Johnson’s dreamlike hallucinations are less successful when he succumbs to covid-19. It is a jarring change in genre style that doesn’t work well at all. Winterbottom is on far safer ground when he exposes subtle and poignant representations of emotion. One of the most powerful is the scene in which a wife stands outside her husband’s care home window as she pleads with the nurse to put a bottle of her perfume on his bedside table so he will remember her. There are many deeply affecting moments like this, and Johnson’s dream-like scenes come across poorly by comparison. Many will also be surprised by the more sympathetic treatment of Boris Johnson in the final episode of the series, where he is portrayed in a somewhat more statesmanlike fashion while being accompanied by heroic music. Perhaps Winterbottom wanted to draw a picture of Boris experiencing a post-covid epiphany of sorts, but it certainly doesn’t resonate with my recollection of events. But then, This England doesn’t claim to be an accurate retelling of Britain’s experience of the coronavirus, raising vexatious questions about authenticity. 

Cast: Barely recognisable, Kenneth Branagh is clearly having a grand time playing Boris as a bumbling buffoon who spends most of his time in a Churchillian stoop while quoting Shakespeare. It all adds to the disturbing appreciation that there is something rotten in the chaotic state of Westminster, and that things bode ill as Johnson mouths his spin-doctored slogans. Simon Paisley does a great job as the bullying and hypocritical Dominic Cummings, although the stronger focus on his undoing does undermine the power of the series in later episodes. But as far as the acting goes, all do well in this quality cast. Notable is Andrew Buchan as Matt Hancock, the often ignored but genuinely concerned health minister, and Ophelia Lovibond who manages to avoid being caricatured as Johnson’s pregnant partner, Carrie. 

Personal Comments: This England  illuminates decision-making in Downing Street offices where the disrespectful nature of political life can most alarmingly be illustrated. It then juxtapositions this insular bubble of activity with the consequential and brutal realities of life outside Westminster as the pandemic overwhelms Britain’s health services. Overall, it is a disturbing watch, particularly given its closeness to our collective experience of the coronavirus. While the drama is gripping, in the end it fails to do justice to this tragic story and I expect it will be difficult to stomach for people who have lived through the losses.


Rating :   ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ 

Categorisation: Drama-Comedy 

Availability: In theatres

Storyline: It’s 1933 and we’re in New York. Medical doctor Burt and his war veteran friend and lawyer Harold have been contacted by the daughter of their former commanding officer. She tells them that her father has died and that she believes his death to be suspicious. She asks Burt to undertake an autopsy, and, with the assistance of an autopsy nurse, they find foul play by way of poisoning. But there are bad guys who are determined to keep the autopsy report under wraps – and they will stop at nothing to make sure of it. Burt tells us ‘You don’t get here without things starting a long time ago…’ and so we are then transported to an earlier time when Burt and Harold first strike up their war time friendship, and their engagement with the witty and beautiful Valerie who has a rather eccentric interest in making artworks out of the shrapnel she saves from the bodies of war veterans. The trio’s friendship results in a pact, a wondrous time together in Amsterdam, and then their involvement in political events of momentous significance.  

Film-craft: American director, David O. Russell brings us a daring and unconventional film that is sumptuous, gory, and very funny. Everyone looks like they are enjoying themselves, and Russell manages to entertain, while also subtly exploring more serious elements within the plot. With great cinematography, it’s a rollicking tour de force. 

Cast: Amsterdam has a star-studded cast, and everyone skilfully plays their part in this quite outrageous whole.  The trio’s pledge of friendship is at the heart of the action. Christian Bale is fabulous as Burt, who is narrator and also provides much of the film’s heart-warming slap-stick humour. Margot Robbie is excellent as Valarie, stunningly beautiful, she exposes her eccentric, and sometimes wobbly side, brilliantly. Grounding them all is Harold, played superbly by John David Washington. Collectively have terrific chemistry. Mike Myers and Michael Shannon as the two spies are wonderfully proper, adding humour that is as dry as a bone. Overall, the cast are a joy to watch.  

Personal Comments: This is a film that may well divide people. I expect some will love it, while others may find it a chaotic caper. The New York Post has called it the worst movie of the year. I think it’s hilarious, stylish and just plain wonderful. If you like the humour and absurdity of the Coen brothers, but without the cruelty, go and see it.

The Suspect

Rating :   ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ 

Categorisation: Murder mystery

Availability: TVNZ on demand, Britbox

Storyline: The Suspect is a five-part British police drama produced by Natasha Romaniuk and adapted for the screen by Peter Berry. Based on Michael Robotham’s 2004 debut novel of the same name, it tells the story of Dr Joe O’Loughlin, a clinical psychologist who has just discovered he has early onset Parkinson’s disease. Despite this, he dramatically and heroically saves the life of a young man who is intent on jumping from a narrow ledge of a high-rise building. Then, before he knows it he finds himself the prime suspect in the murder of a young woman who has a connection with his clinical practice. Suddenly he is looking decidedly shifty, shredding incriminating evidence, and entering the morgue without permission to stroke the victim’s arm as he softly whispers to her that he is sorry. Not surprisingly, the police, who had earlier engaged him as a consultant to the case, are interested in what he is up to. There are far too many coincidences for DI Ruiz’s liking. In order to clear his name, Joe starts his own investigation into the death, erratically moving from one suspect to another, only to find that the finger of suspicion returns to him and he is on the run again.  

Film-craft: This series certainly draws the audience in. From the first edge-of-seat rescue scene, and through the twists and turns of the police investigation, the series has a driving momentum. The high quality of the cinematography in the ITV production, however, doesn’t, make up for some significant holes in the plot and a notable lack of psychological coherence. 

Cast: Aidan Turner is impressive playing the unfortunate Joe. I hardly recognised the dashing star of Poldark and Desperate Romantics (in which he played the gorgeous Dante Rossetti). Turner is ably supported by a quality cast. Of particular note, Bobby Schofield is terrific as Joe’s disturbed client, and Shaun Parkes, as DI Vince Ruiz, manages to bring otherworldly elements of awkwardness to his role. 

Personal Comments: There is no doubt that The Suspect’s plot lacks a degree of credibility.  But if you are not too concerned about that, its entertaining momentum can be disconcertingly compelling. In fact, after the first episode you might just find yourself hooked.