ax work or hagiography? – The Irish Times

The trailer for This England, Michael Winterbottom’s take on the UK government’s Covid response – starring Kenneth Branagh as Boris Johnson – was met with measured and tempered consideration. The world is ready to give it a chance.

I’m joking of course. “I for one will not watch that the man literally killed this country, why are you celebrating it,” A Person wrote on Twitter. “Wtaf! A TV series about THIS! Another person follows. “I have no other words but to cancel your Sky subscription! Disgusting!” Others have gone even further. “Branagh’s Leni Riefenstahl moment,” says One More Person, referring to the Nazi propagandist.

Well, you never know. It is certainly possible that the filmmakers decided to edit a hagiography of Boris Johnson. This would, however, be a political pivot of the driving force. Greed, Winterbottom’s final film, was a savage attack on the super-rich that ended with Steve Coogan’s Bransonesque tycoon being eaten by his own lion. Here, he co-directs with Julian Jarrold and co-writes with Kieron Quirke. The Sky series may not be a demolition, but it seems unlikely to be some kind of celebration.

The trailer doesn’t do much to clarify the show’s position. The dominant voice is Branagh indulging in something close to self-reference. The multi-hyphenated Northern Irishman first emerged as a performer of Shakespeare, including as director and star of a 1989 version of Henry V.

Here, in Johnson’s romper tones, he revisits John of Gaunt’s famous dying speech of Richard II. “This royal throne of kings, this scepter island”, and so on. This speech gives the film its potentially controversial title. Wasn’t Johnson also Prime Minister of Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland? Well yes. But, after devolution, those constituent nations of the UK were largely in control of their own Covid policies. So maybe the show earns the right to steal those words from Shakespeare.

The trailer walks through some of the early skirmishes. The snaps of Johnson and now-wife Carrie Symonds (Ophelia Lovibond) lounging in luxury may be an indirect reference to the Partygate scandal, but Winterbottom confirmed the series hasn’t been edited following the revelations. Lines such as “lack of transparency” and “jobs for the boys” float above the action. Oops, another quick shot of drinking wine and drinking beer. Some argue.

Oh, there’s Simon Paisley Day as Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s controversial adviser, striding along while someone suggests he should be ‘retained’. Then, to the undoubted fury of conspiracy theorists, we see Johnson being sent to intensive care. In the months since the Prime Minister’s treatment for Covid-19, the internet was full of flimsy allegations that it was all – to quote John of Gaunt again – a blessed plot.

The trailer is, in short, constructed to satisfy all sides of the argument. He’s also there to showcase the talents of the UK’s top makeup artists. They do a good job of making Branagh unrecognizable and a reasonable job of making him look like Boris Johnson. Having a PM with such singular characteristics – the blonde mop, the wrinkled suit – is an absolute gift, but, in at least one scene, Branagh looks more like another possessor of those attributes: Stanley Johnson, the PM’s father. Needless to say, our Ken has mastered the incomparable boyish buzz. How much harder it would have been to summon a less flashy politician, like David Cameron or Jeremy Hunt.

Recent comments from Winterbottom suggest that the apparent balance in the trailer may reflect the series itself. “He’s definitely not trying to be ax work,” he said. “I have no idea what people will think when they see it; very few people have seen it. It’s hard to judge whether people will see this as an attack on Boris Johnson or an attack on the government – it’s not planned that way.

Not an ax job. Boo!

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