Chernobyl is the location of one of the single greatest industrial accidents: a devastating explosion in a nuclear reactor. Countless died and the impact is still being felt some 33 years later, with a 2,600 km exclusion zone surrounding the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant. The first of its kind, the disaster highlighted the limit of our industrial ingenuity in a nuclear age, the scale of bureaucratic failure in the Soviet Union and a very human ability to overcome such a colossal failure.
Chernobyl the TV show is one of the break-out hits of 2019. Following swiftly after the lacklustre climax of Game of Thrones, the HBO/Sky Atlantic co-production has proved a dramatic sensation. It’s the very peak of this golden period of TV and yet it’s the antithesis of what this generation of television has led to. It certainly has a sprawling narrative, dealing simultaneously with the aftermath of the 80s disaster and the pursuit for the cause of it. But it’s a single series, a one-and-done blast, a standalone five-hour narrative. It’s unlikely they’ll be a sequel to Chernobyl, giving the show a momentum that can sometimes lack in modern works.
Chernobyl works so well for several reasons. Its creators have made the astute choice to keep the actor’s natural accents. It prevents clumsy attempts at Russian accents getting in the way of the perfectly judged dialogue. It also allows audiences the pleasure of Stellan Skarsgård‘s magnificent voice, gifting a gravitas to Boris Shcherbina, the party man tasked with managing the response to the disaster.
Among a cast packed with talent (the likes of Emily Watson, Jessie Buckley and Barry Keoghan all pop up), Skarsgård is only matched by Jared Harris. Harris is arguably the star of the ensemble, as Valery Legasov, the scientist who first realises the magnitude of what the Soviet Union is facing. It’s his death that the show chooses as its jumping off point, his journey we’re so closely linked to. If there’s a heart in the show it’s Harris, who gives the kind of complex performance he’s shown in lesser works. With Skarsgård and Harris, Chernobyl has two turns that are likely to play a big part in future awards.
The show is a classic example of television hoarding talent behind-the-scenes. Director Johan Renck marshals each episode with skill, while writer Craig Mazin (whose previous credits include, bizarrely, the likes of Scary Movie 3, The Hangover Part II and The Huntsman: Winter’s War) brings clarity and depth to the words spoken. Information is passed on in nuggets, the science parcelled out in convenient exchanges.
The consistency of Chernobyl across its episodes is key to retaining the feeling of an epic-in-length film. The show is stocked with haunting images, driven by the scale of the response (a huge urban area depopulated), and it’s pleasing to see that cinematographer Jakob Ihre is behind this. Ihre worked on the brilliant and criminally underseen Thelma and it’s fabulous to see his skills being given such an epic platform. An underlying tension is crafted by Hildur Guðnadóttir’s score, a subtle presence that builds to key points in the narrative. The footprints of the late, great Jóhann Jóhannsson can be heard in her composition and it’s clear that working alongside Jóhannsson on Arrival and Sicario has left a clear imprint on Guðnadóttir’s music. Chernobyl is the marriage of precise writing, stunning cinematography and a haunting score to leave a harrowing impression on viewers.
The only drawback to Chernobyl is how unrelentingly grim it all is. The show doesn’t wallow in the nastiness or the grotesque, but instead approaches the horrific outcomes of this disaster with the same cool clarity it approaches everything else. There are few moments of levity or release and there are times I had to look away or pause the show for a moment. This is must-watch TV of the highest order but you won’t feel good at the end of it. So maybe pair this with a nice comedy (What We Do In The Shadows is a hoot). Because otherwise it might all be too much to take and you don’t want to miss this.