Chernobyl TV Series Review
This is a departure from my normal reviews of cult and horror cinema, although the HBO mini series, Chernobyl, could very well fit into the latter category. It’s the drama of what happened before, during and after the events at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in April 1986, when the reactor blew up, ironically, during a safety test, forever tainting the land and the lives of the people around it.
The series follows Valery Legasov, a nuclear physicist played brilliantly by Jared Harris, who, when we meet him, in the first episode, is telling his story on tape, before killing himself two years to the day of the tragedy. For the rest of the five part miniseries, we follow him in flashback and see his dogged determination when he is tasked with dealing with the fallout of what happened.
Jared Harris stars alongside Stellan Skarsgård, again showing how he's one of the great actors working today, with his nuanced portrayal of Deputy Prime Minister Boris Schhergina. He's the government man who, at first, doesn't think this industrial accident is all that bad when really it was a nuclear holocaust.
A stand out moment for me was when Boris discovers, from Valery, that his exposure to nuclear material means he's now only got five years to live - which puts him, for a time, in an almost catatonic state. It’s not till a threat of potential, further disaster, if nothing is done, that he is spurred into action.
The other part of the team is Emily Watson's character, nuclear physicist Ulana Khomyuk. She is the first to realise that something is wrong and begins her investigation. She's a key element of the trifecta who are absolutely horrified but must act to spare more lives.
Each episode is written by Craig Mazen and expertly and excellently juggles the massive amounts of information that audiences need to understand. For example: what exactly is happening, the inner workings of a nuclear reactor, what the material would do to people who were exposed to it and how the Soviet Union suppressed information from its people and the outside world. They didn’t want people learning about what happened and didn’t want to be seen needing help from other nations. The feeling was, at the time, that “Mother Russia” could deal with the problem alone - when, really, they were out of their depth.
The direction by Jonas Renck takes us through this troubled situation with the use of carefully staged set pieces - from the initial explosion, the divers who must open the sluice doors to release the water near the reactor and a 90 second clean up sequence that's filled with so much tension that the current crop of horror/thriller film directors should take note! He's also really good at the character moments that take place in the kind of grey and brown, cigarette smoke filled, run down world, that wouldn't look out of place in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
In the opening episode we are introduced to a young couple, one of whom is played by Wild Rose’s Jessie Buckley. She represents how the Chernobyl disaster affected normal people. Her firefighter husband was sent to the incident but ends up in the hospital due to radiation burns, alongside several of his fellow firemen, after being exposed to pieces of the reactor core. Much kudos must be given to the special makeup effects team as the scene where she goes to the hospital where her husband is, is pretty horrific and frighteningly real.
The cast is made up of British and international character actors who you've seen in millions of other TV shows and all add greatly to the proceedings, whether in large or small roles. Thankfully they don't have clichéd Russian accents, a decision by the director or writer that I agreed with, because the acting is so good.
He appears in only one episode but, fellow Scot, Alex Ferns brings a fantastic, fully realised character to the screen. He plays the foreman of a team of Ukrainian coal miners who are tasked to dig under the reactor in order to put a heat restrictor in that uses liquid nitrogen, but without the use of drilling equipment. It's a fruitless task because they'll be exposed to a massive amount of nuclear material.
We now live in world where the TV mini-series isn't seen as the ugly step child to movies and in the case of Chernobyl it's a must-see, intelligent, tension-fuelled drama that both educates and entertains. A show like this doesn't come around too often and when it does, it should be embraced by audiences.
A side note: when the real incident took place, the area of South West Scotland that I'm from, which is farming country, was affected, especially the livestock, for many years, with several farms still under restrictions to this day.
Chernobyl is available on DVD/Download in the U.K. now and Blu Ray 29th July 2019.
Chernobyl is available on the HBO cable channel or its streaming version in the U.S. now and just today scored 19 Emmy nods in a variety of categories.