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Chernobyl (2019) TV Review

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Chernobyl

Cast:
Jared Harris as Valery Legasov
Stellan Skarsgård as Boris Shcherbina
Emily Watson as Ulana Khomyuk
Paul Ritter as Anatoly Dyatlov
Jessie Buckley as Lyudmilla Ignatenko
Adam Nagaitis as Vasily Ignatenko
Con O’Neill as Viktor Bryukhanov
Adrian Rawlins as Nikolai Fomin
Sam Troughton as Aleksandr Akimov
Robert Emms as Leonid Toptunov
David Dencik as Mikhail Gorbachev
Mark Lewis Jones as Vladimir Pikalov
Alan Williams as Charkov
Alex Ferns as Andrei Glukhov
Ralph Ineson as Nikolai Tarakanov
Barry Keoghan as Pavel Gremov
Fares Fares as Bacho
Michael McElhatton as Andrei Stepashin
Creator: Craig Mazin

In April 1986, the city of Chernobyl in the Soviet Union suffers one of the worst nuclear disasters in the history of mankind. Consequently, many heroes put their lives on the line to save Europe.

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I remember when I was first hearing a lot about an HBO show about the events of Chernobyl, it was one of the most highly reviewed and praised mini series’ that I had heard of. So I was going into it fairly optimistic and I really wasn’t expecting it to be as great as it turned out to be. Chernobyl was a truly excellent show, depicting the true life events with such realism and weight that made it hard to watch, but is nonetheless well made on all fronts and riveting from beginning to end.

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The writing for Chernobyl is all around fantastic, and I was completely engaged across its 5 episodes. Not one scene felt unimportant or out of place, it’s just so well put together. Each episode concentrates on its own phase of the disaster, and each phase is handled well. Episode 1 begins with the early moments of the disaster during the initial explosion. After that point, the show approaches the disaster on both a macro and micro scale, as we follow the undertaking that Jared Harris’s Valery Legasov and Stellan Skarsgard’s Boris Shcherbina face when trying to prevent a global catastrophe from occurring after the disaster has occurred. However it also focuses attention to the impact that the explosion had on the citizens of Pripyat such as Jessie Buckley’s pregnant Lyudmilla Ignatenko and Barry Keoghan’s young draftee turned animal exterminator. The story is told with such painstaking attention to detail. It does take liberties, but they seem warranted and it was in service of the overall series. It so perfectly crafts the fear and trauma of the events in such a haunting way. I actually don’t think I’ve watched any piece of live action media that conveys this much dread as HBO’s Chernobyl. It’s also very impressive that it manages to take a threat that feels invisible on screen, and make it feel tangible and dangerous. The miniseries does a great job at commemorating all the countless unknown and forgotten people who risked their lives to try to deal with this situation. The scariest part of the whole show is that these events happened, really adding such a weight to the series when you’re watching. Chernobyl at first beings as a graphic recreation of events, but is more than just a tv series about a tragedy. It’s an exploration about the terrible human and environmental consequences and by the end is a systemic breakdown of a government’s limitations, especially with what they choose to hide. It recounts the major events of the disaster but also gives insight as to why it transpired in the first place. The story feels very grounded in reality throughout, transitioning from being scary, to sad, to even hopeful within seconds. It might be a pretty obvious statement to say but Chernobyl is very bleak and not an easy watch for many reasons. It is very harrowing but it’s a deeply rewarding experience. The end result is a dramatization of events that’s both absorbing and deeply affecting.

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The acting from the cast is all around fantastic. Getting it out of the way, much of the accents from the actors are English, which can be a bit distracting given that they aren’t Russian. However the alternative would be all of these actors attempting Russian accents, so it’s probably for the best. First of all are the leads played by Jared Harris, Stellan Skarsgard and Emily Watson, who are all great in their parts. The highlights for me were Harris and Skarsgard who are fantastic as these professionals in uncharted territory as they try their best to make sure the disaster doesn’t become worse than it already is. The chemistry between Harris and Skarsgard was so amazing and their dynamic changes from their first onscreen appearance to their last. The supporting cast are all outstanding too. The highlights among them being Jessie Buckley as the pregnant wife of a firefighter who was one of the first responders to the disaster, Barry Keoghan as a soldier whose job it is to kill infected animals, and Paul Ritter as a Soviet Engineer who was partly responsible for the disaster in the first place.

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It was all incredibly directed too, with all 5 episodes being handled by Johan Renck. On a technical level it is shot beautifully, with the unnerving yet incredible cinematography. The set designs are exceptional, meticulously recreating Soviet controlled Ukraine which is both impressive and hauntingly beautiful. The whole show has this overcast dystopian look to it which is quite appropriate for the story and tone. Although it’s not a show with many ‘action’ scenes, there are some incredibly breath-taking and tense sequences. An example is the depiction of a rooftop radiation-clearing excursion which was absolutely chill inducing, especially helped by the claustrophobic and truly immersive sound design. The makeup and practical effects is truly detailed and outstanding too, making the representation of what happened to people exposed to the radiation hard to look at. Finally, of course is the eerie and otherworldly score from Hildur Guonadottir, which provides the series with this constant unsettling aura. It perfectly fit the show throughout.

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In all honesty, Chernobyl is some of the best made pieces of television I’ve ever seen, and one of the best miniseries’ I’ve watched. It’s phenomenal on all fronts, with the writing, directing and acting, the story is tragic yet absorbing and compelling. It’s not one I really want to experience again, but I think it is worth watching at least one.