Isolation Stories review: A cathartic chronicle of life in lockdown
Crew (remote and real)8
James R | On 10, May 2020
How do you respond to the coronavirus pandemic, a national crisis the likes of which we’ve never seen before? Washing your hands, staying at home, socially distancing, not touching your face with unsanitised hands and making sure you contain any coughs and sneezes – and, for a small group of actors and filmmakers involved in ITV’s Isolation Stories, attempting to make a TV inside your own home.
It’s a tough ask even under normal circumstances, but while trying to stay in touch with loved ones online, getting groceries without catching or spreading the virus and staving off cabin fever as well? It’s a downright marvel. This four-part anthology shot by each cast’s families members (instructed over Zoom), then, is an impressive achievement, all the more so because it’s so immediate in its depiction of what the country is going through. But it’s an emotional success too, tackling fears, concerns and hopes with a sensitivity and nuance that gets you right in the gut – with no side effects.
The four-parter begins with Sheridan Smith starring in Mel, a drama that delves into the challenge of going through birth without the father being present. With him off with his own family, and with her own relatives giving hr the cold shoulder, she ws going through isolation before the health and safety distancing came into effect. Gaby Chiappe’s script captures the way that a crisis heightens whatever feelings or problems are already there, and Smith does a wonderful job of bringing a fiery resentment and longing for contact to her reclusive, withdrawn figure – at a time when we’re all used to communicating through video calls, White House Farm director Paul Whittington finds a fresh urgency to that most close-up form of communication, even as we all spend more time pausing to wonder what to share with others and what to keep with ourselves.
Communication is at the heart of Karen, a story that tellingly keeps its title character off-screen for most of its runtime. That absence is felt most of all by Karen’s ex-husband, Stephen (Eddie Marsan), who resents the way his father-in-law (David Threlfall) keeps popping into their garden to wave through the patio window at his grandkids, despite Karen leaving them. Threlfall is wonderfully animated, even though he’s kept at a distance, and the two boys – played by Eddie’s sons, Blu and Bodhi, bring an immediately convincing chemistry to their family dynamic. Eddie Marsan has always been a master at burying emotion and letting it erupt through a barely contained surface, and it’s that compulsion not to open up and show vulnerability that really makes an impact, as director David Blair and writer Neil McKay craft a tale of reconciliation – or, more realistically, gradual steps towards reconciliation – as priorities shift and family relationships, no matter how frayed, become more important than ever.
If all of this sounds like heavy viewing, there’s some light relief in Mike & Rochelle’s chapter, which lets the ubiquitous and ever-brilliant Darren Boyd let rip with all the anger, frustration and fear of a man terrified of catching the virus. He demands an online session with his psychiatrist Rochelle (Angela Griffin), in which he yells and rants with razor-sharp timing – before pausing briefly to smile politely at the postman when his doorbell rings.
Made in Dagenham writer William Ivory balances that dark humour with the moving fact that a video call goes two ways, and Griffin’s understated turn pulls the chat back towards the bigger picture, and their connection – choreographed with wit by director Paul Andrew Williams – opens up to a release that’s healthier and more positive.
It’s a difficult tonal shift to pull off, but Isolation Stories works because it’s so unflinching in its grappling with despair as well as happiness – it’s as cathartic, in its way, as standing on the doorstep clapping for the NHS on Thursday nights.
That’s the hook for Ron & Russell, perhaps the stand-out of an excellent quartet, written by Pope himself. Robert Glenister and his actor son, Tom Glenister, star in the hugely moving tale of Ron, who has the virus, and is being cared for by his son, Russell.
Coughing heavily, covered in sweat and barely able to get out of bed without wheezing, it’s a ferociously committed physical performance by Hustle and Spooks veteran Robert, and he backs it up with a mental fragility, as Ron struggles to remember what’s going on – a confusion that brings a heart-wrenching honesty to a conversation where Ron forgets he’s not talking to Russell’s brother, who was always the favourite son. Tom is wonderful as the black sheep of the family unit, whose chequered past can’t dampen his present concern and compassion.
Flesh and Blood director Louise Hooper ties the effort of looking after each other with the strength and comfort that can be found in communal gestures of gratitude, such as the routine NHS clap. In that way, Isolation Stories is a life-affirming reflection of the current downbeat and upbeat limbo the UK currently exists in. There is grief, paranoia and unspoken terror, there is distraction in art and entertainment, and there are fleeting moments of hope and calm. Most of all, there is everyone else, in their own situations, going through the same thing.
Isolation Stories is available to watch on ITV Hub until 7th June 2020.