This England review: Kenneth Branagh drama makes a thorough case against Boris Johnson, if not brilliant TV

As a dramatization, This England is a remarkably thorough piece, entirely to its credit - but as a piece of television that density isn’t always a strength

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One of the more interesting details referenced by This England is the resignation of Andrew Sabisky. A Downing Street advisor and self-described superforecaster – one of Dominic Cummings’ “misfits and weirdos” – Sabisky was an advocate of eugenics programmes, having made various comments to that effect around the internet. His blog comments and forum posts were discovered in February 2020 and criticised extensively, leading to his swift departure from Number 10 only a day later; he was, if not exactly forgotten, certainly off the news agenda and out of the national conversation shortly afterwards.

That This England finds time to include Sabisky in its dramatization of the coronavirus pandemic is telling, if only because that’s exactly the sort of contextualising detail that would be unlikely to find its way into most accounts of the Johnson government. A more traditional biopic - the version of this that’d exist in cinema, starring Gary Oldman - would likely elide that piece of the story, streamlining those brief weeks before the 2019 General Election in December and the first confirmed coronavirus deaths in March 2020 to focus instead on when the pandemic itself ‘began’ in earnest. Stopping to acknowledge Sabisky at all is characteristic of This England, demonstrating both its strengths and its flaws.

As a dramatization, it’s a remarkably thorough piece, entirely to its credit. This England offers a very dense account of those early days of 2020, with little concession to the entertainment value or approachability of a prestige soap like The Crown (indeed, at times it almost feels like it’s raising a slightly condemnatory eyebrow at anyone who enjoys things like Brexit: An Uncivil War or Coalition). It doesn’t restrict itself to the corridors of power, but casts an exacting eye over the briefing rooms and zoom calls where early warnings were raised and dismissed, with a close focus on the most granular procedural aspects that never wavers. There’s a certain steadiness to it that comes with that, always giving the impression of something that’s very controlled – drama that seems to examine rather than depict, in a sense.

As a piece of television, however, that density isn’t always a strength. At times, This England feels almost like a list of bullet points were filmed and edited together – it’s intelligently delivered, undeniably so, thoughtful about how to convey meaning as it cuts from one detail to another, but it never shakes that slightly overpowering underlying structure. This England is exhaustive, but doesn’t often feel intricate in the way it perhaps needed to, with episodes running anywhere between 44 minutes and 77. It’s controlled but not necessarily tight, taking advantage of a longer runtime but not quite working out the best way to do so.

Jimmy Livingstone as Chris Whitty, Kenneth Branagh as Boris Johnson, and Alec Nicholls as Patrick Vallance in This England, delivering a Covid press conference (Credit: Phil Fisk/Sky UK)Jimmy Livingstone as Chris Whitty, Kenneth Branagh as Boris Johnson, and Alec Nicholls as Patrick Vallance in This England, delivering a Covid press conference (Credit: Phil Fisk/Sky UK)
Jimmy Livingstone as Chris Whitty, Kenneth Branagh as Boris Johnson, and Alec Nicholls as Patrick Vallance in This England, delivering a Covid press conference (Credit: Phil Fisk/Sky UK)

The most striking thing about Kenneth Branagh’s Boris Johnson is that he speaks the same way in private as he does in public. “Beware the Ides of March,” he murmurs to himself, quoting passages of Latin and Ancient Greek texts to no-one in particular, unable to even take a nap without comparing himself to Winston Churchill first. If This England believes Johnson is putting on an act, it also doesn’t much care what’s behind that carapace – it’s a deliberately one-dimensional portrayal, not buying into the idea of a conniving politician pretending to be a clown, finding him ultimately hollow. His references look facile, his engagement with his own interests superficial and unsophisticated, all the things Johnson uses to define himself examples only of an immature myopia.

It’s an impressive performance from Branagh who – genuinely – disappears into the role. (As do most of the cast: Branagh is the only one you might call stunt casting, with This England largely favouring near-unknowns or chameleonic character actors. Simon Paisely-Day, a better Cummings than Cumberbatch, and Broadchurch’s Andrew Buchan, eerily and unexpectedly reminiscent of Matt Hancock, are standouts.) Bits grate, occasionally, like an almost Richard III-esque lopsided gait, or the slightly-obvious fascination with biographical details like his childhood ambition to be “world king” – but as a whole it’s a remarkably kind of pantomime grotesquery, the thoughtful and intentional performance of a caricature to expose how little substance is really there. With the first of no doubt many dramatic interpretations of Johnson, Branagh sets the bar high.

Johnson is just one thread of This England, though – the buzziest and most overtly attention-grabbing, certainly, but not really the one this dramatisation is most concerned by. Cabinet meetings are juxtaposed with stories of coronavirus sufferers around the country: snapshots of lives, ended too early, all treated with weight and dignity, juxtaposed against the comparatively privileged pain of Johnson’s own recovery. Bad news is delivered dozens of times across This England, but each play out with the same emotional intensity of the first. Real care has been taken to present this in an unvarnished, uncompromising way, and at times it’s difficult to watch even as the skill of the craft is obvious.

Where This England falters, at times, is when it loses that distance from the heart of government. In its final episodes, it becomes too fascinated with Dominic Cummings (likely because there’s such a breadth of available information about his Downing Street tenure) and lets itself get bogged down in the individual rather than the systemic. There’s still a value to it, even as the limits of its approach start to become apparent – and then it stops abruptly. If This England is too soon, it’s not because of its distance from the pandemic; really, it’s arrived at an accidentally perfect time, a parting shot at Johnson as the Truss era begins. No, it’s too soon because its intensely detailed approach almost demands elaboration to feel complete – as is, it’s like the train just runs out of track.

This England begins on Sky Atlantic at 9pm on Wednesday 28 September. Every episode is available as a boxset on NOW TV, which you can sign up for here.

I watched all six episodes of This England before writing this review. You can read more of our TV reviews here, and follow our twitter account here.