The Father: a good if generic character study of the impact of dementia on its victims and their families

Florian Zeller, “The Father” (2020)

Detailing an elderly father’s deterioration from dementia, and the effects his condition has on the people around him, this film adopts the dementia victim’s perspective to draw in viewers to share in the victim’s disorientation, paranoia, mood swings, loss of memory and ultimately loss of identity. Viewers come to identify with the victim’s confusion and experience his emotional devastation and fear of losing himself as he begins to enter the disease’s final and most advanced stage of memory loss and fragmentation. The film begins with Anne (Olivia Colman), a middle-class Londoner, telling her father Anthony (Anthony Hopkins) that she is going to live in Paris with a new partner after five years of being a divorcee, and that she can no longer help him every day as she used to do. From here on, the film follows Anthony as he tries to cope with this news and deal with yet another care-giver, Laura (Imogen Poots), after all the other care-givers who have left him because of his mood swings and his tantrums. A sense of mystery develops as various mysterious people (played by Mark Gatiss, Rufus Sewell and Olivia Williams) move in and out of the London apartment where Anthony lives. These people are not readily identified by name – audiences may assume Sewell is playing either Anne’s ex-husband or her new boyfriend – and Anthony either takes them for people he knows or treats them as strangers and responds to them with hostility. Only at the very end of the film are the characters played by Gatiss and Williams revealed, and the apartment where Anthony has been living is exposed for what it actually is after all its transformations and changes in furniture and decor throughout the film. A second mystery, almost a sub-plot, that involves the whereabouts of Anthony’s second daughter Lucy (Imogen Poots again) develops in the characters’ dialogue.

Originally adapted from director Florian Zeller’s French-language play “Le Pere”, the film relies a great deal on Hopkins and Colman to bring the father and daughter and their fractious relationship to life in a convincing manner. Hopkins brings his full range and experience as both a stage and film actor to portray Anthony, especially in the film’s final moments when he has an emotional breakdown and becomes infant-like: this is the most heart-wrenching part of the film, all the more so because by this time the daughter Anne is absent. Colman’s role as the caring daughter is rather more stereotyped as viewers are limited to seeing and experiencing things from Anthony’s viewpoint; thus we do not see what work she does and what her relationship with Sewell’s character is actually like. Colman does do excellent work with what she is given but viewers may well feel she should have been given more to flesh out Anne as a woman forced to give up much of her life and put it on hold to care for someone whose need for help is rapidly becoming more than she is able to give. The rest of the cast give good support.

While the film’s focus on the dementia victim’s viewpoint is original and admirable, at the same time it has the effect of making Anthony’s condition and the difficulties it causes for his family rather banal and generic, and insulated from the outside world. We do not see any difficulties Anne and Anthony might have in dealing with medical personnel or the National Health Service generally. The film takes place in a London yet to be besieged by COVID-19 pandemic lock-down: the events of the film might have been more interesting if Anne were prevented or restricted by lock-down in looking after her father and how Anthony copes with extended periods of isolation that he is unable to understand the reasons for. It is obvious from the comfortable if ever-changing apartment surroundings that Anthony and Anne are very well-off but there is no discussion of money issues or medical payment delays among the characters that could have generated further tension and conflict. The result is a film that can only go so far in demonstrating how dementia and other diseases that devastate elderly people can have a tremendous emotional, financial and logistical impact on their families, and no more. “The Father” is a good film as character studies go but it is not a great film.

The Courier: a film of personal growth and suffering and of friendship transcending politics and ideology

Dominic Cooke, “The Courier” (2020)

The story of Greville Wynne, a most unlikely character ever to become a spy for MI6 during the Cold War in the early 1960s, shuttling between London and Moscow and ferrying classified Soviet information given him by a military official in the Kremlin that reveals nuclear warfare capabilities to MI6 and the CIA, is given widescreen movie treatment that explores the nature of friendship and loyalty in extreme circumstances. Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch) comes to the attention of MI6 and the CIA, represented respectively by handlers Dickie Franks (Angus Wright) and Emily Donovan (Rachel Brosnahan) as he travels frequently to eastern Europe as a sales representative for an engineering company. Wynne is asked to go to Moscow and contact Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze), a Soviet military intel official, who will give him papers to bring back to London, in his usual role as sales representative. After initially resisting the offer, Wynne goes ahead to Moscow and meets Penkovsky. A routine is quickly established: Wynne starts making trips to Moscow to catch up with Penkovsky who takes him to the opera and the ballet, and introduces the British man to his family, all the while feeding Wynne with information and photographs that eventually prove valuable to US intelligence and the White House in defusing the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. However the Soviets themselves have a mole working in MI6 – there were a number of double agents in British intelligence working for the USSR – and the mole helps the GRU to work out who is passing valuable Soviet secrets to the British. Penkovsky and then Wynne are arrested by the GRU, tried and charged with espionage, and both men are thrown into gaol. Wynne winds up in the then notorious Lubyanka prison where he suffers many privations and beatings over a period of nearly two years before he returns to Britain in 1964 as part of a spy swap.

The film serves mainly as a character study of an ordinary Englishman, initially unremarkable in personality and very apolitical, suddenly thrust into a situation where he eventually is forced to take sides and finds himself capable of heroism to try to save a man he comes to regard as a friend when that man’s life is in danger. In doing so, he is captured and is forced to suffer brutal violence, near-starvation and ill health in prison, subjected to psychological manipulation and not knowing if he has been abandoned by MI6. Cumberbatch does excellent work as Wynne who grows in moral stature through the film even though what he does as a courier is a thankless task – there is no suggestion that MI6 and the CIA reward him for the risks he is exposed to. Indeed MI6 is quite willing to discard Penkovsky and his desire to defect to th West once the GRU (Soviet military intelligence) is onto his trail and only Donovan rallies to Wynne’s side to try to save Penkovsky from arrest and certain death. The suffering Wynne undergoes is matched in the physical rigours Cumberbatch had to undergo including near-starvation to get the haggard look. Unfortunately the film ends at the point where Wynne is released from prison and reunited with wife Sheila (Jessie Buckley) and son Andrew (Keir Hill) and we do not see the psychological traumas and other effects – including separation and divorce from Sheila – Wynne suffered, and this perhaps is a grave oversight on the part of the script.

The other actors in the film, and Ninidze in particular, also give very good performances. Buckley does what she can with a very limited role as Wynne’s long-suffering wife. As a sop to current Western identity politics, the character of Donovan is a composite character of several actual CIA and MI6 agents who include a British woman, Janet Chisholm, who also was a conduit for Penkovsky. The cinematography is well done, emphasising the greys of a world of 60 years ago in which black and white were actually not so clear-cut as we think they were, without being remarkable. The scenes set in Moscow or which involve Russians appear very stereotyped and viewers get no real sense of how Russians might have viewed Penkovsky and Wynne after they have been caught and their espionage made public.

The film is well made and fairly faithful to its source material, extracting from it a story about one man’s personal growth and a friendship that transcends politics and the grubby and frequently unethical world of espionage. Still I can’t help but feel that “The Courier” was made largely in the service of current British government propaganda and deliberate disinformation and lies demonising Russia for no reason other than that Russia has been a long-standing rival to British global imperialist and predatory ambitions, and that this context in which the film was made must surely have had some influence on the way the script was written and what may have had to be omitted. While the Americans get what they want to outfox the Soviets on the latter’s deployment of missile bases in Cuba, and the Soviets shut down Penkovsky as a traitor, the British must still be seen to “win” in some way, hence perhaps stopping an interesting story of how espionage was usually done and how unsuspecting ordinary people got roped into spying and ended up paying a price for it, just to achieve that “happy ending”. Intel agencies carry on duelling against each other in spite of the alarming collateral damage they create along the way.

CTRL Z: gentle romantic time-travel comedy with a sting in its tail

James Kennedy, “CTRL Z” (2017)

Cats may have nine lives but the characters in this very funny sci-fi romantic comedy end up having nearly 4,800 lives thanks to a time-travel device invented by main character Ed (Edward Easton), a socially shy romantic who finds talking to and impressing Sarah (Katie Beresford) the girl of his dreams so excruciatingly difficult that he needs an infinite number of attempts to work up the courage to approach her. Each time he makes a dreadful mistake, he has to reset his time device back to the point where he is about to leave the table at the fast food restaurant to walk over to where she sits alone – but this means after making his mistake he has to die or kill himself. For support he has brought along a friend Carrie (Kath Hughes) and for much of the film’s running time Ed and Carrie keep up a constant repartee about his time-travelling box (which Ed explains has certain limitations, all of which are necessary for the way in which the plot eventually unfolds: the time-travel device only goes back in time to a predetermined time but is able to loop over and over indefinitely), the effects it has already had on both their lives – they have been stuck in the fast food restaurant for three years already – and the countless (ahem) times Ed has tried to talk to Sarah without getting sick and throwing up. Eventually after Carrie’s numerous suggestions to Ed fail, Ed turns to the waitress (Natalie Ferrigno) for help and the waitress suggests Sarah is upset and not amenable to being chatted up. Ed then tries in his own way to offer comfort to Sarah who is touched by his gesture of kindness.

From then on the surprises pile on quite thick and fast: Ed’s attempt at romance seems to have failed once again but then there is a twist and for the first time in a long time Ed’s life seems to be on track with a definite friendship. The climax when it comes – when Ed steps out onto the road – is sudden and savage, and Ed’s face, when he goes into an endless time loop, is sure to spark speculation about his behaviour during that loop. Having got off first base finally after nearly 4,800 tries, does he now suddenly realise that making second base is more difficult than he knows … or is the euphoria of leaving first base so good that he wants to relive that moment for as long as he can even if it means dying another 4,800 times? And what will happen after the plutonium in his time-travel device finally decays after, say … 82 million years later?

Comedians Easton and Hughes have good chemistry together and their timing is excellent while Beresford and Ferrigno have much less to do and seem more limited. The other minor characters in the fast food restaurant serve as decoration but even they are quite memorable in their reactions to Ed and Carrie stabbing each other with steak knives. The fast food restaurant setting with the low lighting throws the emphasis on Ed and Carrie, and the film noirish evening / late night ambience adds mystery and a sense of this story being isolated and self-contained that suits the plot with its looping repetitions.

A significant moment comes when Ed and Carrie step outside the fast food restaurant for a quick smoke and Carrie accuses Ed of reworking his life’s narrative in a way that suits his selfish purposes while others (like her) are not allowed the same privilege. At the same time the decisions that Ed makes and reworks (or on the other hand, does not make or rework) surely have an effect on other people’s lives that are long-lasting: over the three years that Ed has been working up the courage to talk to Sarah, she and the other people in the fast food restaurant may have lost three years of their lives. Interestingly it’s only when Sarah makes a decision that all characters, Ed included, can move on from three years of endless repetitions.

Ostensibly a film about friendships and the difficulties of romantic love and how it must be negotiated, “Ctrl Z” has a little sting in its tail that might say something about the nature of repetition, addiction and ultimately control over one’s life and other people’s lives. What seems to be apparent victory for Ed turns out to have a price.

This Time Away: a succinct and heartwarming character study with a sting in its tail

Magali Barbe, “This Time Away” (2019)

A very heartwarming little film, succinct and taut in its telling, yet filled with tenderness and depth, this character study is a showcase of great storytelling and acting. Nigel (Timothy Spall) lives alone on his sprawling property, not wanting to see or speak to anyone else, determined to live out his twilight years in isolation after the death of his wife. Daughter Louise (Jessica Ellersby) does what she can to look after Dad but, depressed and unhappy, Nigel tersely sends her away. Time passes and the house – and Nigel as well – becomes unkempt and messy.

One day Nigel looks out the window to see a bunch of kids kicking something in his front garden so he angrily stomps outside and shoos them away. The object the children were tormenting turns out to be a little robot which eagerly follows Nigel into the house and soon becomes his companion. The robot names itself Max when Nigel wants to know what to call it. Over time Max restores order and cleanliness to the house and studio – where Nigel keeps his old notebooks on building prototype robots. As Max becomes familiar with Nigel’s house and routines, it spies an old photograph of Louise and Nigel tells Max who she is and her relation to him. Through this and other actions, viewers quickly grasp that Nigel has never been a very expressive man verbally but has always preferred to express himself by using his brain and hands to build things and create a comfortable and prosperous life for himself and his family.

Little does Nigel realise though that Max isn’t the only one observing him and his routine, the changing interiors in the house, and the changes in Nigel day by day as the robot gives him a reason to continue living …

As sole actor for much of the short film, Spall is in his element playing a character who needs connection with others and is unhappy being alone but finds asking for help difficult. His acting is minimal but it can be very nuanced and repeated viewings of this film will reward viewers with the care and depth he puts into portraying Nigel. The camera follows and sometimes dwells on Spall’s craggy features, and the actor and the character merge into each other. As Louise, Ellersby has much less to do but in her brief appearances she has affection and care for Nigel and his gruff behaviours.

The film makes quite good use of light to show the gradual changes in Nigel’s life after Max’s arrival and how those changes reflect his emotional improvement and perhaps his acceptance of his wife’s death and preparedness to let go of old attitudes and grudges. The plot is very minimal though one might puzzle over why Nigel appears never to question Max on how it turned up at his home when it did and why.

While the film appears to have a happy ending, it is also slightly chilling in its revelation that Max is really a tool for manipulating Nigel and it does suggest that we humans are much more malleable than we are prepared to admit. That man-made technology does a better job than a human in reconnecting an individual human to society and encouraging him to make changes in his life that improve him may say something deep and critical about the nature of our relationships with objects and other humans. After all, if Max can bring Nigel back into society, Max can just as easily mould Nigel into something that diminishes him as a human … and Nigel could very easily become a prisoner.

Two & Two: a study of how an individual dedicated to the truth can live in a police state society

Babak Anvari, “Two & Two ” (2011)

Notable for its minimal grey and dreary setting which throws all the audience’s attention onto the dialogue, the plot and the film’s themes, “2 + 2 =5” is a mini-study of repressive totalitarian government. Somewhere in Iran, in a boys’ school a brusque male school-teacher (Bijan Daneshmand) enters a grimy classroom where twelve young students are already seated. Through an intercom on the wall next to the blackboard, the headmaster’s voice admonishes the students that changes are a-foot and they are to obey their teacher without question. The teacher then writes 2 + 2 = 5 on the blackboard and compels the students to repeat what he has written several times over. Two boys object, saying that 2 + 2 = 4: the first boy is quickly put in his place by the teacher but the second student stands his ground bravely. Three senior boys are brought into the classroom to intimidate the student as he continues to assert that 2 + 2 =4. He is eventually brought down by imaginary machine-gun fire from the seniors, as if before a firing squad, and the other boys are horrified at the carnage. As the senior boys drag out the boy, the remaining boys are forced to repeat continuously after the teacher that 2 + 2 = 5 and to write down that sum. However the constant repetition cannot pry into one boy’s mind no matter how many times the repetition is bashed into his brain.

For such a short film, obviously made on the proverbial shoe-string budget, the plotting is deeply affecting as a student is forced to decide between pursuing the truth and blind conformity to the values of a virtual police state. The drab appearance of the classroom and the clothes worn by the boys emphasise their lack of individuality. The older students are clearly a metaphor for the security forces who enforce arbitrary laws, themselves often drawn from the society they are to police with brutal violence. Close-ups are frequently used to differentiate one boy from the next and to reveal their individual natures. Throughout the film the defiant student is subjected to harassment from the teachers and the senior students, and wins no support from his fellow classmates. After his death, the teacher dismisses him as rubbish and proceeds to drum the New Mathematics into his students over and over. However much he gains in outward loyalty though, his lesson has little effect on some students who decide for themselves what to believe.

The film addresses the question of how an individual with inner integrity and clear values can exist in a dysfunctional society that demands absolute obedience to its ideals and ideologies. How is one to pursue the truth, and what value does truth have in a society that spurns it? Once the truth has been found, how is one then to spread it and make others aware in the face of continuous lying and suppression of the truth? These are all intriguing questions for viewers to consider.

The Red Dagger: a fiery poem essay narration and diatribe against corruption and oppression

Alan Cox, Heathcote Williams, “The Red Dagger” (2013?)

Presented in six parts on Youtube, British actor / poet Heathcote Williams’ poem essay “The Red Dagger”, a diatribe against the City of London and the part it has played in oppressing humanity across the world since the 1300s at least, is given vivid and impassioned audiovisual life by fellow UK actor Alan Cox who narrates the poem and supplies the montage of art, photographs, film stills and snippets of film and video to accompany his recitation. The red dagger of the title refers to the red sword that appears on the emblem of the City of London and, according to Williams and Cox, represents the dagger used in the murder of Wat Tyler, one of the leaders of the Peasants’ Revolt in England, in 1381 by officers loyal to King Richard II. (According to other sources I have read, the red sword on the emblem is a representation of St Paul, the patron saint of London.) Through the details of Wat Tyler’s Rebellion, in which Tyler and rebel monk John Ball led a movement insisting on social equality, abolishing the political hierarchy supporting the monarchy and ending the feudal system (under which peasants were the de facto property of landlords, bound to their masters’ lands), the poet Williams calls attention to the corruption of the political and economic elites that surrounded King Richard II (reigned 1377 – 1399) and finds parallels with the present City of London, its corruption and its control of the global financial industry, and how the activities of the financial elites impoverish and enslave entire nations.

Parts 1 and 2 of Cox’s fiery narration cover the 1381 uprising of English peasants against the King and his lords, and in itself the uprising as portrayed is very stirring. Whether or not the uprising has lessons for us in the 21st century might be debatable: for one thing, the levels of technology in mediaeval England were low, scientific and other general knowledge was limited, and the manipulation and exploitation that English elites exerted over the peasantry correspondingly were limited to mainly physical means, with some limited brainwashing of people’s minds courtesy of the Christian Church, a significant landowner and itself a major landlord oppressor of peasants. The most significant parts of Cox’s narration are Parts 3 and 4 in which he goes into detail about the extent of the activities and networking of the elites in the City of London and its secretive institutions, the extent to which the City of London controls the British government, its past participation in the British colonial / imperial project and the Atlantic slave trade, and its current participation in trafficking arms to nations with sordid human rights records and the global drug trade. Individuals and businesses in the UK financial services industry take advantage of opportunities to evade paying taxes owed to the government by sending money into offshore trust accounts or transfer pricing arrangements in tax havens. Something of the lavish, decadent culture of the City of London elites, dependent on rich banqueting and the associated networking, fuelled by addictions to drugs, casual sex and use of prostitutes, and possible links to sex trafficking and other sordid underground activities, is revealed in the narration and montage.

Cox’s film and Williams’ poem cover much ground and detail of how the City of London operates and has operated over the centuries, and viewers might well need to see the film at least twice to absorb most details. Being based entirely around Williams’ poem, the film does not give information sources so viewers will need to do their own research to confirm the information about the City of London. (A good start is Nicolas Shaxson’s book “Treasure Islands” which investigates the global scourge that is taxation evasion.) While the poem and film might play hard and fast with some details in parts, and Tyler’s actual rebellion might not have been as utopian, idealistic and socialist as the poem implies, the poetry genre proves to be an ideal format by which Williams (1941 – 2017) brings important political, economic, social and historical information to the general public’s attention.

The film along with transcripts of each part and footnotes giving information sources can be viewed at this link.

Ask The Experts (Covid-19 Vaccine): over 30 medical experts warn of the dangers of Covid-19 vaccines

Ask The Experts (Covid-19 Vaccine)(Oracle Films, 7 December 2020)

Banned on Facebook and Youtube, this film features over thirty doctors plus a nurse, a pharmacist, an acupuncturist and a journalist all advising caution to the public in accepting COVID-19 vaccinations or urging people to avoid them outright. The medical experts who speak out against the vaccines are based in North America and various European nations. Each doctor introduces himself or herself, provides a little background information about himself/herself and then explains why s/he opposes the vaccinations. The doctors are very eloquent and appeal to people’s ability to reason and to make choices. Several doctors say that the SARS-CoV-2 virus has never been isolated and proven to exist, and that the PCR tests used to determine if someone has had contact with the virus are flawed. A few claim that the COVID-19 pandemic is a hoax.

With well over 30 health experts all expressing their opinions on the disease, the virus, the lockdowns and restrictions that have been invoked by governments around the world to deal with the pandemic, the film is bound to be rather repetitive. Several doctors verge on sounding very much like conspiracy theorists. We do not learn their views on vaccination itself as a tool in disease prevention or mitigation strategies. One doctor (Barre Lando) tells of his experiences in dealing with children affected by vaccination injuries and the pharmacist Sandy Lunoe warns that pharmaceutical companies developing vaccines have taken out legal indemnities with law courts to block any future litigation attempts against them over the COVID-19 vaccines.

Perhaps the most alarming opinions expressed are those of Dr Hilde de Smet who says that pharmaceutical corporations have been trying to develop coronavirus vaccines for 20 years and have tested them on animals with the result that many animals end up with symptoms similar to those of COVID-19, and of Dr Elke de Klerk who states that the vaccines may cause sterility in women and girls, and change people’s DNA. Professor Konstantin Pavlidis believes the vaccines may result in neurological side effects. Throughout the film doctors express reservations about the speed with which COVID-19 vaccines, several of which are based on very new technologies, are being rushed and approved by governments in spite of several trials generating unusual and sometimes severe side effects or the trials themselves being of dubious worth because of suspect research design.

The film may need to be played few times for audiences to digest the most important information in several of the interviews. Some doctors are not too clear and a few could have been advised to take some elocution lessons! In spite of its repetitive nature, the film does express viewpoints that are beyond the pale for mainstream news and specialist media, and a message throughout the film is that people can find and do research on the topic of COVID-19 and how it is spread.

The Salisbury Poisonings (Part 4): manipulative propaganda posing as maudlin soap opera

Saul Dibb, “The Salisbury Poisonings (Part 4)” (2020)

The tedium finally comes to an end in this fictional account of what the British government and news media claimed occurred in Salisbury over several months in 2018, starting with the collapse of Sergei and Julia Skripal in a shopping mall in early March 2018 and ending with the death of Dawn Sturgess, supposedly from spraying herself with a deadly nerve agent she mistook for perfume which her boyfriend found in a charity bin in June 2018. The sub-plots are so threadbare in plotting, dialogue and character portrayal that the entire series resembles a strange tour of a zoo in which bored animals pace in circles in their cages or engage in repetitive behaviours. As we have now come to expect, Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey (Rafe Spall) is still trying to come to terms with his near-poisoning death from Novichok and the dramatic effects it has had on his family and their circumstances. Bailey seems unable to continue with his life on leave from the police force. His long-suffering wife and daughters continue … to be long-suffering. Salisbury public health department head Tracy Daszkiewicz (Anne-Marie Duff) continues juggling the demands of her work with those of her partner and teenage son, and having doubts about her ability to do her job well. Dawn Sturgess (MyAnna Buring) dies, leaving her family grieving and flummoxed about the nature of the “perfume” that killed her.

The episode lays on the anti-Russia propaganda more thickly by having mention of real-life Russian tourists Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov (who visited Salisbury on the same day that the Skripals fell ill) on television. The episode strongly insinuates that these men’s actions make them responsible for the death of Sturgess, even though to date no direct or indirect evidence has surfaced that would point to the men’s culpability. By doing this in the context of a maudlin, melodramatic soap opera, “The Salisbury Poisonings” becomes dangerous propaganda, cynically targeting and manipulating people’s emotions by devoting so much attention to Sturgess’s death and funeral and focusing on her grieving family, especially her mother and young daughter.

By the end of the mini-series, the characters of Bailey, Daszkiewicz, Sturgess and the people around them are no better drawn than they were at the beginning of the show and they remain stereotypes: the brave, stoic police officer and his devoted family, caught up in events by accident which change their lives and which they cannot control; the career woman trying to prove to herself that she can be a successful leader and home-maker; the fallen woman who wants to remake her life and start afresh. These stereotypes are intended to represent British people as stoic, determined and resilient in the face of an extraordinary crisis and emergency – even though in the mini-series, no-one actually seems to do anything useful to end that emergency.

By using the structure of a melodramatic soap opera, in which characters are more important than the narrative they supposedly follow, the BBC escapes with a crappy script, sketchy character types, the most atrocious dialogue, lack of accurate information and the dumping of vile propaganda onto the viewing public. Anyone who thinks s/he might actually learn something about the Skripal poisonings from this drama will quickly be disabused of such a quaint notion. The issue should have been dealt with in the form of a documentary with some live-action drama restaging the most significant events with an emphasis on facts and logic, not on manipulative pulling of the heart strings.

The Salisbury Poisonings (Part 3): more overwrought schlock drama

Saul Dibb, “The Salisbury Poisonings (Part 3)” (2020)

In this episode, Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey (Rafe Spall) recovers from his poisoning attack in hospital, only to discover later together with wife Sarah (Annabel Scholey) that their house and all its furniture and their family’s other belongings have been destroyed by the British government. Moreover the Baileys cannot make an insurance claim and are advised by their solicitor to … sue the Russian government for damages, since it is supposedly responsible (in the absence of any proof) for the poison that nearly killed Bailey. Dazed and confused by the advice, the couple stumble out into the streets of Salisbury city. Elsewhere, Tracey Daszkiewicz (Anne-Marie Duff) is busy making a hash out of protecting Salisbury residents from the mysterious Novichok poison: at one point in the film she considers dredging the entire pond system in the city and almost decides to kill all the ducks and swans when police learn that before their collapse the Skripals had been feeding bread to the birds. Somehow over the months following March 2018, Salisbury endures and survives an extended state of emergency, though how this is done is not made clear in the film because it takes enormous leaps in time without making this clear to viewers. Daszkiewicz’s work takes her away from her partner and son, and her relationship with both suffers.

Nine miles away in Amesbury, drug dealer Charlie Rowley (Johnny Harris) and girlfriend Dawn Sturgess (MyAnna Buring) are chowing their way through charity bins; Rowley finds a perfume bottle in one of the bins. He later gives it to Dawn who sprays perfume from it onto her wrists. Some hours later she collapses, gasping for breath, and Charlie rushes her to Salisbury General Hospital. He also needs to be admitted as a patient. Much later in the film the Rowley and Sturgess families gather in the hospital where they are stunned by news that Charlie and Dawn have been contaminated by Novichok.

The film is extremely vague and sketchy on the timeline of the events that make Salisbury the cynosure of all eyes and ears around the world in early 2018. One gets the impression that the sub-plots are happening all at once when in fact the sub-plot that involves Sturgess took place some time in June after everything seemed to be going back to its usual placid normality and the story of the Baileys had long disappeared from the media. Daszkiewicz appears not to do anything decisive and important yet somehow she does her job and manages to keep her partner and son from running away. The Nick Bailey sub-plot is remarkable mainly for not really saying or doing much that would gain viewer sympathy for two cardboard cut-out characters in Nick and Sarah Bailey.

A hilarious moment comes when the Porton Down chemicals expert exclaims that Novichok was found everywhere in the Bailey house and family car, yet Sarah Bailey and her daughters escape unscathed, which the expert can only call a miracle. (The truth surely is that the whole official account about the Baileys was made up to scare the Salisbury public into accepting whatever lock-down restrictions London imposed.) Apart from this, the episode is basically overwrought soap opera schlock. I can forgive actors for appearing in this mini-series because they need money and there may be few acting jobs in Britain but everyone associated with the script should be hanging his/her head in shame.

The agenda behind the mini-series is to reinforce British government propaganda of Russia as a sinister menace and a threat to British national security. This explains why this television show has had to be done as a fictional drama series: a proper documentary about the Skripal poisoning incident and its aftermath simply can’t be made because it would expose British political elites and British news media, including the BBC, as unprincipled liars.

The Salisbury Poisonings (Part 2): cheap TV drama populated by cast of cardboard stereotypes

Saul Dibb, “The Salisbury Poisonings (Part 2)” (2020)

Part 2 of this dreary mini-series purporting to show the effect of the Skripal poisoning incident on the people of Salisbury focuses on the sub-plots surrounding two characters, Tracy Daszkiewicz (Anne-Marie Duff), the public health department head of Wiltshire Council, tasked with safeguarding the entire city population from the mysterious menace called Novichok, and Sarah Bailey (Annabel Scholey), the wife of the stricken police detective Nick Bailey (Rafe Spall). Daszkiewicz spends her time running between her office and various locations around Salisbury where Sergei and Julia Skripal travelled on the day they fell ill; to her horror, these places include Miller’s Pub and Zizzi’s Restaurant where the couple lunched on seafood risotto: itself a possible source of poison which Daszkiewicz never considers despite her position and the knowledge she should have. All these locations and the police station where Detective Sergeant Bailey reported are found to be swathed in Novichok. Trying to shut down these businesses, which would cost Salisbury millions in lost rent and jobs, while keeping the public reassured that everything is being done to keep people safe, would be a difficult job for anyone, let alone someone who talks herself into doubting that she can handle the job; yet according to this woeful episode, Daszkiewicz’s biggest problem is keeping a balance between the demands of her work and the demands of her partner and son for her attention. It obviously does not occur to the partner and the son that maybe for just half a year or so they could see a bit less of her while she lives at the office 24/7 until the emergency is over. Meanwhile Sarah Bailey visits her husband every day at the hospital, hugging and kissing him despite his perspiration being possibly full of nerve agent that should have killed him (and maybe his entire family) 36 hours ago. Their daughters endure teasing at school when his name is publicised in the news media. In another part of Salisbury, Dawn Sturgess (MyAnna Buring) is troubled by the news of the Skripal poisoning and boyfriend Charlie Rowley (Johnny Harris) comforts her and tells her he’ll take her back to his place in Amesbury.

With the plot jumping all over Salisbury, viewers will feel nothing significant happens that advances their understanding of what is going on in this melodrama, apart from people having conniption fits or being close to bawling their eyes out in frustration over the dire script. The dialogue is atrocious. Nowhere in Salisbury General Hospital is there any indication that the Skripals are being held. The police and emergency services zero in on the front door of the Skripal home: it seems that the door knob is smeared in Novichok. (No-one explains though how it can be that both Sergei and Julia Skripal are contaminated with Novichok, unless every time they enter and leave the house, they both have to hold the door knob together. The other possibility that the door knob is not the primary source of Novichok tainting never arises.) While police remove the door and other investigators in hazmat suits remove people’s vehicles from the streets and take them to Porton Down, viewers are left scratching their heads at all this activity which is never explained adequately and which is cut off by over-eager editors wanting to get the next scene on the screen.

The episode panders to all the worst stereotypes about women, be they full-time homemakers or working women torn between the pressures of their jobs and the needs of their families. Sarah Bailey is portrayed as a saintly Madonna figure and Tracy Daszkiewicz epitomises the harassed working woman trying to do the best she can and just managing to hold everything and everyone together. Male characters in the episode tend to be helpless or vacillating, and end up deferring to Daszkiewicz. Dawn Sturgess runs into the arms of her lover. Everything these characters do is so generic that they are more colourless and shallow than water, and viewers are not likely to feel much sympathy for them.

We are no closer to knowing what is happening to the Skripals or where they even are in Salisbury during the episode. Viewers expecting some facts or reference to facts will be dismayed. This mini-series is little more than a cheap soap opera.