The crisis of leadership Britain has been plunged into over recent years merits sustained study as a cautionary tale. But it demands deeper and sharper analysis than is available in “This England,” a curiously indifferent six-part miniseries notionally centred on former Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s handling of the initial coronavirus outbreak, currently limping out on Sky’s U.K. arm.
When Winterbottom’s Revolution Films announced the project (originally titled “This Sceptred Isle”) last year – with Kenneth Branagh unveiled as the project’s Johnson – speculation was rife. Would the series be an ensemble satire, along the lines of Winterbottom’s rambunctious “24 Hour Party People”? Or an artfully sober inquiry, in the vein of the director’s Amanda Knox-inspired “The Face of an Angel”? In fact, it’s neither: what we’ve got is a hurriedly assembled primetime procedural that undermines its claim to rigorous accuracy from the off by misspelling the name of Johnson’s soon-to-be-wife Carrie Symonds in its opening credits.
Non-spellchecking proves a less significant flaw than Winterbottom and co-writer Kieron Quirke’s failure to communicate anything we didn’t already know. The opening moments sketch in a potential throughline in Johnson’s attempt to complete his long-mooted Shakespeare biography – the task political critics insist distracted the PM during the pandemic. Yet this promising set-up is soon overwritten by varyingly prosaic reconstructions: bitty, semi-improvised fragments of scenes, often featuring non-professional performers, which come and go, generally leaving less trace than the average Tweet on Johnson’s Downing Street tenure.
Where 2021’s one-off COVID-19 telefilm “Help” achieved a tight, often wrenching dramatic focus, here we get four credited directors (Winterbottom, Julian Jarrold, Anthony Wilcox and Mat Whitecross) and a vastly more scattershot approach. The series is predominantly composed of snapshots of the myriad battlegrounds on which the first wave of COVID-19 was fought in March and April 2020: care homes, emergency rooms, testing labs, research facilities, and the households of ordinary Britons. News footage fills some of the narrative gaps, and we sporadically return to Number 10 for some sub-Sorkin walking-and-talking.
Here, at least, the project begins to assume a kind of shape, while still never quite committing to heading in any truly rewarding direction. There’s a hesitant aspect of (tragic) farce, as evidenced by Johnson’s response when special advisor Lee Cain (Derek Barr) insists the government needs to give the public a message (“So what is the message?”). The show is vastly more forward in conveying its own stance, editors Tania Reddin and Marc Richardson cutting pointedly from elderly patients being locked down to an apparently carefree Johnson and Symonds entertaining visitors at a never-more-spacious Chequers.
Yet in the effort to cover so much ground, characterization suffers: the people we’re watching divide into either Whitehall wonks mouthing familiar-sounding policy statements, or innocent victims of tardy policymaking. There’s no meaningful arc for anyone in the hundred or so speaking parts to play, just a series of fatally unfortunate events that may still feel too close to home for many to willingly revisit. (Each episode ends with a boilerplate offer of support for those “who may have been affected by the events depicted.” You can only hope Sky have taken on additional staff, given that the U.K. population stands at 68 million potential callers.)
Some faces register more forcefully than others, inevitably. The hollow-cheeked stage actor Simon Paisley Day glowers and cultivates a gruff Durham accent as Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s own Karl Rove, while never escaping the charismatic shadow of Benedict Cumberbatch’s slyer Cummings impersonation in 2019’s “Brexit: The Uncivil War.” Ophelia Lovibond strikes yoga poses and models multiple wardrobe changes as Carrie, waiting for the pregnancy drama that comes to a head in the closing episode. And Team Winterbottom recruit passable lookalikes in the roles of Matt Hancock, Rishi Sunak, Chris Whitty and Jonathan Van-Tam.
As for Branagh-as-Boris – stuck under jowly layers of latex and a blonde frightwig – he’s unarguably the kind of juicy casting coup on which a series can be launched. (Publicity photos made the tabloids within days of production starting.) You can see why the actor might have been drawn to the role. Prone to bellowing the Bard as the viral storm blows in, this Johnson is at once King and Fool, doubly so when – as per the official record – he himself contracts COVID-19, leaving him with sweaty night visions of his lovers and children on a Bergman-esque shore. (Ripe as it is, you’re grateful for one of the show’s few properly imaginative flourishes.)
Yet, he’s only ever the seventh or eighth most important element in Winterbottom’s thinking; all but a guest star, he’s sent on like a posh Fonz whenever the show threatens to flatline entirely. And the voice we hear emerging from this rubbery carapace, blustering through the Johnson greatest hits, vacillates: sometimes it’s spot-on, but sometimes it’s Branagh, and sometimes it’s someone else entirely. It’s an oddly sloppy and misdirected performance in a show that, whatever its ultimate politics, comes over as highly Johnsonian: much-trumpeted, clearly ambitious, but sketchy on the important detail – and disastrously underprepared.
“This England” airs on Sky Atlantic on Wednesday nights; a U.S. transmission date is yet to be announced. Six episodes in total; all six were screened for review.
Executive producers: Michael Winterbottom, Richard Brown. Associate producer: Ben Pearce. Line producer: Eimhear McMahon.
Producers: Josh Hyams, Melissa Parmenter, Anthony Wilcox.
Cast: Derek Barr, Kenneth Branagh, Andrew Buchan, James Corrigan, Jimmy Livingstone, Shri Patel, Ophelia Lovibond, Simon Paisley Day, Charles Dance.