Chernobyl drama series is sober, respectful and unbearably tense

Jessie Buckley stars in Chernobyl.

Ed Power reviews Chernobyl, the new drama series on Sky Atlantic.

It’s over 30 years since disaster struck an obscure Ukrainian nuclear installation and sent a radioactive cloud drifting over Europe. But has enough time really elapsed since Chernobyl for Sky and HBO to slickly repurpose the tragedy as a five-part prestige drama?

Any queasiness over the subject matter is quickly set to rest in this sober, respectful – and unbearably tense – chronicling of the events of April 1986 from Hangover scriptwriter Craig Mazin and former music video director Johan Renck.

It features the standard sprawling cast – including Kerry’s Jessie Buckley as a pregnant young woman whose husband is one of the first to attend the reactor meltdown and Emily Watson as a Belorussian physicist– and a time-hopping storyline.

What is most striking is the clear-eyed and even-handed fashion in which it bears witness to Chernobyl and the cover-up that ensued (kudos, too, to not making the cast enunciate in cliched East European burrs – Buckley even speaks in an Irish accent).

We open with physicist Valery Legasov (Jared Harris) dictating to a tape machine his recollections of the bungling that led to the explosion and the lies and doublespeak that followed. And then Mazin and Renck rewind 24 months, to the catastrophe itself.

Here, the verisimilitude is striking and shocking. In the town of Pripyat locals hear a bang and experience a minor shudder. There’s been an explosion at the power-plant down the road. When the fire crew rush in, at first they have no idea what they are dealing with ("it's just a roof fire," Buckley's character is told).

They aren't helped by a campaign of obfuscation that begins almost immediately – with senior figures at the plant essentially denying what is happening in plain view.

In addition to acknowledging the sacrifice of the first responders and their families Chernobyl also functions as a searing criticism on the bureaucratic-industrial complex. We learn that the deep state in the Soviet Union ran deep indeed and that individual lives were as naught compared to the necessity to keep up appearance in front of the world.

Chernobyl is now part of the history books – and it’s easy to forget this was a real tragedy with real victims. Here, Mazin and Renck bring that to life the sheer horror that unfolded, with results that make you sit upright but also repress a shudder.

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