This England Review

This England
As Boris Johnson (Kenneth Branagh) becomes Britain’s Prime Minister in 2019, it seems all his dreams have come true. Then the Covid-19 outbreak changes his life and the lives of everyone in the country. How does a man who lives to entertain cope with guiding a country through disaster?

by Olly Richards |
Published on

Streaming on: Sky Atlantic / NOW

Episodes viewed: 3 of 5

When Michael Winterbottom began shooting this drama about Boris Johnson’s premiership and the Covid pandemic, both still held the nation in their grip. He had no idea that before release the UK would have learned to live with one but decided it could no longer abide the other. That’s part of the problem with this handsomely made, superbly acted drama: it’s telling the biggest story of the century without enough distance to offer much new context. It’s a well-produced re-enactment of things you probably already know and may not be keen to relive just yet.

There are two distinct halves to This England. One is an account of how the pandemic took hold of the world with terrifying speed. Real archive footage and all-too-realistic dramatisations show NHS staff struggling to fight an illness that refuses to follow any established rules, and people dying while the question is debated of whether this could be really serious. It’s all very respectfully done, though something feels off about scratching at wounds that for many people are still healing.

As Johnson, Kenneth Branagh has nailed the mannerisms, although heavy prosthetics sometimes make him look oddly like he’s wearing a Halloween mask.

Alongside that is the juicy semi-fictional stuff, a look behind the scenes at the government’s calamitous reaction to the biggest health crisis in a century. Triumphantly winning a landslide election in December 2019, Boris Johnson fairly quickly has to contend with leading the country through a pandemic. It’s a portrait of a man who lives to be loved, learning what it means to actually be the most important man in the country. As Johnson, Kenneth Branagh has nailed the mannerisms – the shoulders-back stride as if marching into a stiff breeze; the rollercoaster up-and-down of his sentences – although heavy prosthetics sometimes make him look oddly like he’s wearing a Halloween mask. Even beneath the make-up, he conveys the cracks appearing in Johnson’s confidence well — a man who can’t cope with giving people bad news, whether it’s the nation or his own family.

Though fictionalised, it’s believable that these scenes happened and the great cast convince as all too well-known faces — yet it ultimately feels like only part of a story. Stopping well before Partygate and Johnson’s resignation, This England is a portrait unfinished.

Kenneth Branagh leads a very strong cast in a drama that is assembled with great skill, yet feels made far too soon.
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