LONDON — In the final moments of the new mini-series “This England,” Boris Johnson, the exhausted and embattled British prime minister, stares bleakly out of a window at 10 Downing Street and falls back, as he often does, on Shakespeare.
“This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,” says Johnson, who is played by Kenneth Branagh in the series, a six-part drama about Britain’s ordeal with the coronavirus pandemic.
“We usually leave it there, you know,” he says, turning to his anxious wife, Carrie (Ophelia Lovibond), who is cradling their newborn child. “Forget the rest.”
But Johnson goes on to recite the end of John of Gaunt’s deathbed soliloquy from “Richard II,” with its damning reproach of the king. “That England, that was wont to conquer others,” he says, “hath made a shameful conquest of itself.”
It is a fitting coda to a much-talked-about show in Britain, a series that captures the everyday heroism of Britons during the pandemic, but also the failings of their leaders and how those failings contributed to a dilatory response that arguably deepened the nation’s suffering and led to needless additional deaths.
“This England,” which debuted with solid ratings on Wednesday on Sky Atlantic in Britain, chronicles, almost day-by-day, how the first wave of the pandemic swept across the country. To many, the timing is curious, given that the latest wave of the virus hasn’t even ebbed yet.
Michael Winterbottom, the British documentary filmmaker who wrote the script with Kieron Quirke, said that he viewed the show as a “mosaic of many people’s experiences,” from those of Johnson and his advisers to those of doctors and nurses — and, above all, of the dying — in the overwhelmed hospitals and nursing homes.
“The goal was to be human and, I think, humane,” Winterbottom said in a joint interview with Branagh. “To honor and acknowledge this incredible, painful loss.” For all the government’s confusion and missteps, he added, “There was a sense that everybody was doing their best.”
Yet inevitably, “This England” shows people falling short. Caught in the fog of a mysterious illness, some in government, like Johnson, initially underestimated the risk. Others were compelled to make bad personal choices, like the prime minister’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, who drove 260 miles, in breach of lockdown, to visit his family as the virus struck.
Work on “This England” began in June 2020, not long after the first wave had rampaged across the country, and the desperate scenes in ambulances and hospital intensive care units have an anguished immediacy. Much of the commentary about the show in Britain has focused on whether it’s too soon to dramatize all of this.
Nearly 300 people died of Covid-19 in England in the seven days ending on Sept. 17; more than 4,000 were admitted to hospitals. The government is still pleading with people to get their booster shots. Johnson was drummed out of office only two months ago after a scandal over parties at Downing Street that violated lockdown rules.
The outcry over the parties does not figure in the film, which ends instead with the misbegotten road trip Cummings made to his parents’ house in the north of England after his wife contracted Covid. This abridged timeline led The Financial Times to declare that the show “pulls off the unusual feat of feeling simultaneously premature and dated.”
Winterbottom acknowledged that the show was a first cut and that some might prefer the cooler perspective that comes with distance, which might be found in future books or films about the pandemic. But his goal was to make a kind of diary of a national trauma, he said. “By being close,” he noted, “you’re able to get a fresher view.”
The other big debate is over Branagh’s performance as Johnson. The actor, a 61-year-old Oscar-winner, wore a blonde wig, prosthetics and padding to assume the 58-year-old politician’s shambling appearance.
Some critics praised Branagh for nailing Johnson’s propulsive gait and peculiar diction. Another dismissed it as an impersonation that recalled the puppets on “Spitting Image,” a British TV show that satirized public figures of the 1980s and ’90s.
Branagh, who has played real-life figures including Franklin D. Roosevelt and the German SS officer Reinhard Heydrich, said that he and the writers had debated how closely he should try to mimic Johnson. They concluded that the former prime minister was too vivid in people’s minds to stray far from the O.G.
“With somebody so prominently in the public eye,” Branagh said, “I think it’s harder to serve to an audience something that is very, very different — that is stylized and abstract.”
To plumb Johnson’s interior life, Branagh said that he had read all the former prime minister’s books, including his biography of Winston Churchill, as well as his newspaper columns for The Daily Telegraph. He came to see Johnson as a kind of “poet-politician,” ambitious and combative, but also emotionally separated from those around him by the crushing weight of his job.
That translated to the production. “I didn’t really have small talk with other actors,” Branagh recalled. “It was as if there was already a sense that you must be burdened, and if you are burdened, you must be left alone.”
Branagh watched footage of Johnson hustling through the House of Commons to capture his distinctive forward-leaning posture. He said that he had been especially struck by a video in which Johnson, then the mayor of London, runs down a 10-year-old boy while playing rugby during a visit to Japan. “This barreling-forward intensity, almost unstoppable, is just part of the propulsion,” Branagh said.
But “This England” also offers a sympathetic portrayal of a harried man with a tangled personal life. Between crisis meetings and late-night awakenings to soothe his crying baby, Johnson is depicted as plaintively leaving voice mail messages for his adult children. It suggests a painful rift after Johnson divorced his second wife, Marina, and moved in with Carrie, who worked as a Tory Party communications aide.
“This England” also captures the cramped, claustrophobic work environment in Downing Street, which doubles as the prime minister’s home and the headquarters of the British government. There are tracking shots of aides walking and talking about urgent matters of state, which recall the Aaron Sorkin series “West Wing.” The close quarters nearly became deadly after Johnson himself contracted Covid and wound up in an intensive care unit for three days.
To the extent that there are heroes and villains, the show clearly puts Cummings in the black hat category. Played by Simon Paisley Day, he is depicted as arrogant, entitled and contemptuous of his colleagues. Winterbottom said that the producers had reached out to all the principals to gather their accounts.
When the show takes the camera out of Downing Street, “This England” abruptly shifts from a political procedural to a tragedy. There are many scenes in hospitals and nursing homes, some of which were filmed in a real nursing home with actual residents and nursing staff, who were essentially re-enacting their experiences.
“Our starting point was to make everything as accurate as possible, as authentic as possible,” Winterbottom said.
It adds up to a heartbreaking depiction of the pressure on health workers, and the fear, pain and often lonely deaths of those hooked up to ventilators. By the final episode, it is easy to understand why a tormented Johnson would stand at a window, peer into a cold dawn and mourn how a disease had conquered his “sceptered isle.”