This England review: Kenneth Branagh’s Boris Johnson drama is not what you’re expecting

Written by Michael Winterbottom and starring Kenneth Branagh as the 'hopeless and tragic' PM, This England reflects on political failings and public hardship during the first wave of Covid.

By Alex Fletcher Published: 30 September 2022 - 3.44pm
Kenneth Branagh as Boris Johnson in This England

Stream every episode of This England on Wednesday, 28 September on Sky Atlantic with NOW

This England is a brutal and tough watch and shouldn’t be entered into lightly.

Don’t be fooled by the sight of Kenneth Branagh in prosthetics as Boris Johnson, because this six-part drama cares just as much about the despair and misery that Covid unleashed across Britain as it does the politicians, scientists, and civil servants in charge in those tumultuous early months of 2020.

However, if you feel ready to stomach a drama that drops you right back into those early months of the pandemic, a time before any sort of vaccine existed and the health services and care homes were on their knees, This England is an engrossing watch.

The series reflects with despair on the failures of those in charge when the pandemic hit. The egos, the lack of seriousness, the timidity to make real decisions, the constant search for ‘good news’ and endless focus groups rather than investing in science or data.

Kenneth Branagh as Boris Johnson in This England

Branagh’s Boris Johnson is buffoonish and endlessly distracted by his personal life, but the drama avoids a hatchet job. It doesn't really delve beyond the Johnson caricature or attempt to apportion blame.

Instead, the series positions the former PM as a hopeless and tragic figure – and importantly the series also cuts off before any of the party-gate saga kicks in.

Andrew Buchan does an astonishing Matt Hancock impression, portraying the health secretary as a man given no support in the worst circumstances, but also managing to make dreadful decisions – remember his reward of badges for care workers? Ophelia Lovibond’s social media-obsessed Carrie Johnson is another highlight as the series wisely avoids any misogynistic take on her as some kind of Lady Macbeth figure.

Simon Paisley Day’s Dominic Cummings and Derek Barr’s Lee Cain are the only characters to really get a kicking as both are painted as arrogant and self-absorbed bullies.

Rather than passing judgement on Cummings' infamous Barnard Castle trip, the drama chooses to relay the events of his journey to Durham in parallel with the heartbreaking stories and moments of true despair being experienced around the country.

For all Cummings’ bluster about super-forecasting and blather about everyone else’s failings in the Civil Service, This England suggests that it was his team and government that dithered.

In one pre-Covid scene, the beanie hat-wearing strategist insists that the government shouldn’t be worrying about serious flooding in the country. “We should be looking into the climate, not worrying about the weather,” he complains.

But for all Cummings’ talk of big ideas and sweeping changes, This England reveals the British political system was not only tragically ill-prepared for Covid, but also being run by people too timid and self-absorbed to make smart and quick decisions.

The one glimmer of hope that runs through the series is the incredible science that gave us the vaccines to slowly emerge from the Covid pandemic, as the series highlights early on the jaw-dropping speed the scientists were able to find an answer.

The cutting edge of modern science and the dedication of those who work in healthcare starkly reminds the viewer of the inanity and wastefulness of those in Downing Street who spend their days distracted by everything from Shakespeare quotations and Brexit to Dilyn the dog’s daily walkies.

If you’re ready for a flashback to 2020, This England is a brutal and unflinching reminder of the despair, pain and horror of those dark and uncertain days.

This England - BT.com rating

Four stars out of five rating

Where to watch This England

Stream every episode of This England on Wednesday, 28 September on Sky Atlantic with NOW.