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Movies & TV

06th May 2019

Chernobyl turns a real-life disaster into one of the best and scariest TV shows you’ll see all year

Rory Cashin


This will be the other HBO show that everyone will be talking about this week.

One of the most well-known true-life disasters in the history of mankind, it would take a steady hand not to tip the scales while telling the story of Chernobyl and end up with it becoming a tasteless exercise in Hollywood-tinted heroics.

Instead, HBO have followed a route previously set out by The Impossible, in which an actual disaster is portrayed as an out-of-human-control horror movie, something to be survived and endured instead of being entertained by.

And so right from the jump of the new five-part mini-series (JOE has seen the first two of these), as the show wastes very little time getting right to the core explosion, one that those in power simply refuse to believe has actually happened, even as evidence is literally raining down around them.

Filled with grim, woozy visuals as the illuminated, radioactive cloud fills the night sky, and a constantly oppressive score by Hildur Guðnadóttir (who worked a lot with the brilliant, recently passed Jóhann Jóhannsson), the mood immediately grabs you like a vice around your heart and does not let up once; only twisting tighter and tighter and the reality of how bad the situation truly is reveals itself.

Director Johan Renck (best known for directing music videos for David Bowie and Madonna) and writer Craig Mazin are in no rush to release the viewer from this nightmare, as we’re only properly introduced to the show’s actual protagonists – Soviet nuclear physicist Valery Legasov (Jared Harris), Soviet Deputy Prime Minister Boris Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgård), and Soviet nuclear physicist Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson) – well into the second episode.

Irish talent Jessie Buckley (who JOE spoke to about the show here) plays the wife of one of the first-responding firemen on the scene, while Barry Keoghan, who is also on the cast-list, had yet to appear by the end of the second set of credits.

Everyone in the show adopts an English accent, regardless of the actor’s actual origin, and this is sometimes interspersed with actual Russian telephone calls and public announcements, which was probably an easier (and less distracting) option than have everyone attempt Russian accents throughout.

As everyone involved gets a better handle on the extremity of the disaster – up to and including Mikhail Gorbachev (played brilliantly by Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’s David Dencik) – the plans begin to be put in place in order to stop things from getting any worse. But those plans are secondary to any word of the disaster getting out in the first place, as some in the government are more concerned about Russia’s appearance than Russian’s civilians.

So before too long, the government has put the entire area into a complete lock-down, no way in or out, and all phone lines are cut. Only those trapped behind the lines can actually do anything to save the day, but they may already be too close to the disaster to survive for too much longer. It truly is a horror movie set-up, made all the scarier by knowing that this is exactly what actually happened there.

It is that dichotomy of the terrible things that happened and got worse through inaction, compared with the true heroics that some men and women performed, sacrificing themselves in some of the most painful ways imaginable for the greater good, that is the true beating heart of Chernobyl.

Even knowing how the story will eventually play out doesn’t detract from the inescapable tension on screen, as the very-well-researched specifics of the story play out on a cinematic scale, but still capable of breath-catching, intimate horror using nothing more than a slowly-flooding room and a dodgy flashlight.

It is a tough, grim watch, but also one of the best things you’re likely to see all year.

Episode one premieres on Sky Atlantic and NOW TV on Tuesday 7 May, with one episode every week until Tuesday 4 June.

Clip via HBO