Rating : ⭐️ ⭐️
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.