'This England' review: Kenneth Branagh's Boris Johnson drama is an eye-opening exposé

This England: Boris Johnson celebrates winning the 2019 General Election as Covid-19 emerges in Asia and Europe. (Sky)
This England: Boris Johnson celebrates winning the 2019 General Election as Covid-19 emerges. (Sky)

Starring Sir Kenneth Branagh as Boris Johnson This England — which airs on Sky from 28 September — never seeks to challenge the notion that British politics is an institution tainted by self-serving bureaucrats with barely veiled agendas, but instead uses drama to dig deeper into the debacle.

Co-written and directed by Michael Winterbottom (The Trip), This England is a savvy combination of meticulous research and fictional documentary style footage, which actively delves into the government's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In so doing, both Winterbottom and his fellow writer Kieron Quicke have created a drama which actively melds facts with fiction. This inflammatory piece of real-life drama was made for television, but feels like it could destabilise an already crumbling Conservative government.

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Headed by a heavily disguised Branagh as Boris Johnson, the evolving drama plays out at the dramatic intersection of Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion and Armando Iannucci’s In The Thick of It.

Sir Kenneth Branagh as Boris Johnson in This England. (Sky)
Sir Kenneth Branagh as Boris Johnson in This England. (Sky)

It captures the ludicrous escalation of events which led to Johnson taking power, while drawing drama from an emerging viral threat creeping every closer to British shores. Blurring the lines between fact and fiction through awkward meta-moments, the mixing of genuine stock footage with accurate retrospective data, adds a startling level of authenticity.

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For any audiences who wonder whether This England waters down events, mollycoddles key figures, or otherwise seeks to exonerate those responsible — think again. As events inevitably gain momentum, screen time is divided equally between the Jenner Institute, Downing Street and Boris Johnson’s personal affairs — which go some way to creating a dramatic balance.

Dominic Cummings (Simon Paisley Day) in This England. (Sky)
Dominic Cummings (Simon Paisley Day) in This England. (Sky)

As COVID research gains ground at the Jenner Institute in Oxford, so meetings back in London between Chris Whitty (Jimmy Livingstone), Dominic Cummings (Simon Paisley Day) and Matt Hancock (Andrew Buchan) hit political obstacles. For anyone who kept even half an eye on events at the time, these fictionalised exchanges will really open their eyes.

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Everything is time stamped, every day sees infection rates rise, while the truth is systematically withheld from a terrified general public. As the long-term effects of living with this virus increase, deaths are documented with an unflinching emotional honesty. This hammers home the fundamental errors which occurred at the time, and also highlights an on-going ineptitude borne of complacency and privilege.

Watch a trailer for This England

This England wastes no time in establishing character or motivation, as all the central players are well known, meaning that audiences arrive well informed. Where Michael Winterbottom and his ensemble really excel is in selling this factual account as a riveting moral fable. Boris Johnson, as portrayed by Kenneth Branagh, comes across with a surprising degree of humanity, yet never garners sympathy.

He is merely a bit part player in this vaudeville which masquerades as contemporary politics, more concerned with his expectant fiancée Carrie Symonds (Ophelia Lovibond), than anything outside in the real world.

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Dominic Cummings is portrayed as the real ringmaster in this Conservative circus, admonishing and encouraging in equal measure. It's the role of a lifetime for Simon Paisley Day, which he grabs with both hands, stealing every scene without exception.

Ophelia Lovibond as Carrie Symonds and Kenneth Branagh as Boris Johnson in This England. (Sky)
Ophelia Lovibond as Carrie Symonds and Kenneth Branagh as Boris Johnson in This England. (Sky)

However, beyond the tour de force performance from Paisley Day, This England lives or dies on the consistent quality of an exceptional ensemble elsewhere.

The cast populates this dramatic reconstruction with eerie degrees of detail, which only work because these mistakes were all made in reality. This Sky original drama could act as a social document for future generations seeking to understand how our political system failed in such spectacular fashion.

As the weeks turn into months, real world data illustrate how badly things went wrong. Not only in estimating the rate of infection, but more importantly, taking into account how Britain’s infrastructure would crumble under pressure. Makeshift hospitals were erected, protective clothing was in short supply and countless people died through a lack of decisive action at the highest level.

Boris Johnson (Kenneth Branagh) addresses the nation during the pandemic. (Sky)
Boris Johnson (Kenneth Branagh) addresses the nation during the pandemic. (Sky)

The question of whether audiences are ready to watch this series is academic. Michael Winterbottom and Kieron Quicke have created something important here, which is everything an eye-opening expose should be – being both emotionally honest and rigorously exacting in terms of detail. Whatever the opinion of those who dive into This England, there is no denying its potential impact for those still in power.

With the monarchy in transition, a new prime minister in office, and COVID still very much in play, this drama may well resonant beyond these borders and hit home further afield.

If nothing else this is a drama which genuinely delivers on every level without compromise.

This England will be available through Sky Atlantic and NOW TV from Wednesday, 28 September. Watch a trailer below.