This England review – so sympathetic to Boris Johnson it is absolutely bananas

The voice is spot on. That awful moist, blustering sound – a semi-croak, squeezed out of a tense throat by a man who can never relax because he has no foundations to rely on – is perfect. Close your eyes and Kenneth Branagh could easily be Boris Johnson. The face full of prosthetics is less convincing and becomes a distraction. But that the mask begins to slip the more time you spend in the man’s company may be the metaphor to end all metaphors. If so, it’s one of the more successful elements of Michael Winterbottom’s six-part drama This England (Sky Atlantic), which follows the then prime minister Johnson and his government through the first wave of the pandemic.

It is hampered from the off by feeling both too soon and wildly out of date. This England was in post-production when the Partygate scandal broke and the decision was taken not to try to revise it at such a late stage, when presumably only the most superficial changes could have been made. And of course, Johnson has since been replaced by someone who is shaping up to be – though it hardly seems possible – even worse, albeit in a less showmanish and more stunned-halibut way.

The entire project now has the air of only telling half the story and not telling the truth. This would undermine any drama based on real-life events, let alone one that devotes as much time as Winterbottom’s to what feels – to quite deadening effect – like simple reconstruction. The salient points of Cobra and Sage meetings, the public daily briefings and the handshaking hospital visit are shown, and the pros and cons of locking down, contact tracing and mass testing are laid out for us and Matt Hancock by doctors and scientists via dialogue so leaden that you wonder if it was really possible for the pandemic to have been this boring for anyone. Meanwhile, a tally of reported and actual cases scrolls by on screen as the days pass. There is no art here and it doesn’t work as documentary either. The factual films that emerged during and after the height of the pandemic have been without exception more informative and moving than this.

Partygate and all the other revelations since make the Dominic Cummings (Simon Paisley Day) and Barnard Castle debacle, rendered here in exhaustive detail, seem wrongly weighted. It was, we know now, a bagatelle. And it makes the hugely sympathetic portrayal of Johnson, as a man pulled in many directions by a new wife (to be), baby and dog, saddened by a distant relationship with his other children, a biography on Shakespeare overdue and now – oh what a sea of troubles! – a pandemic to deal with on top of everything else, which would have raised eyebrows at the best of times, seem absolutely bananas.

The characters are merely ciphers, even Johnson. The only suggestion of any kind of hinterland is his occasional glance out of the window to mutter a quote to himself instead of to an effortfully appreciative audience. He is nothing more than the idle, cowardly buffoon we already know him to be. Cummings is no more than the robotic weirdo whose image you conjure from the times when he was still allowed to appear in front of cameras. Care home supervisors and members of the public whose sickening, ventilation and deaths we see are merely sketched in. This is a disservice.

The message seems to be: “Well, everyone was trying their best. Tough situaysh, you know?” Which won’t really do.

It feels as though it is still too soon for drama. To see such recent, terrible times again is so gruelling that, although I stand by my criticisms and have tried to control for the effect, it makes us resistant to engaging with it again.

Yes, we need to process our individual and collective experiences and art will help us do that – but the artists have to be ready first. On this evidence, we are all still in a state of post-traumatic stress, able only to repeat what happened to us until we can cope with the facts. In time, hopefully, we will be able to observe the events from different perspectives, combine and recombine them as stories that aid understanding and dissipate our horrors, allow for questions and posit some answers. But we are not there yet.