Oof, this was a tough one. As one of the many people who spent time in hospital with COVID-19, some parts of This England felt like I was watching a horror series. This was a difficult, triggering watch, but I often couldn’t look away.
While This England certainly feels incomplete – the series was already in post when later scandals like “Partygate” became public knowledge – it excels when bringing to life the harrowing early days of the virus. At an intensely breakneck pace, the first few episodes take us back to Jan-March 2020 as Covid secured its grasp around the world. Harrowing scenes within busy hospitals show us, once again, the immense losses, and the toll on the health services. Archival footage viewed now is just as nightmarish as it was at the time..
But the main draw here for many is Kenneth Branagh’s performance as Boris Johnson. While the voice and mannerisms are uncannily similar, the prosthetics struggle under close scrutiny – especially in the more well-lit sequences. But while Branagh’s Johnson is remarkable, the series itself is often nauseatingly sympathetic to the man. While I’m not going to delve too deeply into my personal views here, I feel Johnson has a far lot more to answer for than the series suggests. A disclaimer states the series is a work of “fiction based on real events”, but this lets some bad people off the hook – although Simon Paisley Day does portray Dominic Cummings like a panto villain.
This England is a surreal experience. Revisiting history so recent in this sort of series, often presented like some sort of horror/thriller, is a difficult pill to swallow. Those who lost loved ones or otherwise suffered – and maybe even continue to do so – will find no solace from this series, which certainly earns its trigger warning as it interweaves genuinely heartbreaking tales of loss throughout.
Across six intense parts, This England is a compelling watch, but ultimately leaves a rather empty feeling. What was the point? The majority of characters are given something of a ‘lesson learned’ redemptive experience, but not one that is heavy-handed enough to signify the series’ potential intent. As a by-the-numbers journey through a dark period of our shared history, there is a lot to admire about the series – but a bundle of missteps and the overall feeling of a wasted opportunity to hold those accountable for a far greater loss of life than expected leave a bad taste.