Simon Pegg, Adrian Lester and Hannah Khalique-Brown star in The Undeclared War, a cyber-espionage thriller that struggles to live up to previous Peter Kosminsky dramas like Britz and The State
Undeclared War isn’t one TV show, it’s two, each jostling for space. One of them is better than the other. More often than not, unfortunately, the weaker of the two shows wins out.
The former is, as advertised, a cutting-edge spy thriller, a state-of-the-nation drama that mixes political intrigue with densely researched storylines pulled straight from the headlines. It’s classic Peter Kosminsky in premise, style and tone, reminiscent in particular of the first episode of his 2007 drama Britz. We open in April 2024, with a snap election on the horizon. Prime Minister Andrew Makinde (Adrian Lester), who ousted Boris Johnson a fortnight earlier, is seeking to consolidate his position after a difficult first year in office.
During a routine test of the BT Openreach platform – the system that maintains and facilitates broadband access across the UK – the internet crashes. Not just for GCHQ, where the test is being carried out, but across the country: major email providers are down, Zoom stops working, all online shopping stops, hundreds of thousands of appointments at the hospital are missed. It’s a huge disruption to Britain’s digital infrastructure – but it’s also clearly a target. It won’t be long before Prime Minister Makinde calls for swift retaliation against Russia, seen as the most likely aggressor.
Undeclared War is much more comfortable in this register – perhaps not exactly in full swing, but certainly the first of its two shows is the strongest. As a spy thriller, it’s well-structured, with a keen sense of how best to develop and intensify its story; the twists and escalations are well-distributed, with the tension mounting nicely in The Undeclared War’s six episodes. There is also, characteristically Kosminsky, a sense of something very intensely researched – small procedural details, such as where GCHQ jurisdiction ends in an increasingly militarized context, give the series a well-lived texture.
The political plot, insofar as it intersects with the spy thriller, works well too. Simon Pegg and Alex Jennings impress as the last voices of moderation, increasingly skeptical of their own position and in danger of being ousted by more jingoist impulses; Adrian Lester gives a pleasingly flimsy performance as the prime minister determined not to publicly betray his own insecurity. As for how the series is grounded more generally, it’s perhaps a bit less politically sound than previous efforts like Britz and The State, strong on the details but lacking an underlying perspective to unify the research and drama – it manages, but disappoints when compared to the memory of Kosminsky’s earlier work.
Where The Undeclared War really struggles, however, is in the second show which makes up its two halves. The spy thriller and political intrigue are framed by domestic drama, tracing the family life of our point-of-view character Saara (Hannah Khalique-Brown), an internship student who is the first to understand the extent of the Russian cyber attack. It’s often an unsightly combination, rarely rising above dramatic deadweight and tending to diminish the work done elsewhere – so far as The Undeclared War is clearly a well-researched piece, for example, it doesn’t convince never quite that a work experience student would be granted as much leeway or independence as Saara throughout history.
Worse, however, it just feels like a fairly underwritten part of the series. Compared to the political/spy threads, the domestic drama of The Undeclared War demonstrates a surprising lack of trust. It falls back on recognizable storylines, with its twists telegraphed a mile away, and often feels the need to make explicit what could easily be left as subtext (if Mark Rylance and Khalique-Brown share screen time, being affectionate towards each other, we can read this as a fatherly relationship without needing Saara to literally say “you remind me of my father”). It may feel like the work of a writer outside of their comfort zone, less able to rely on extensive research to weave in this other story.
That’s somewhat of a shame, because Khalique-Brown’s performance is one of the most intriguing aspects of The Undeclared War, and it’s not always necessarily best served by the hardware. Saara is quite stuffy and reserved, often brusque and rude, with few concessions to charm the audience; Khalique-Brown’s performance, in turn, is interestingly muted, positioning the character at some distance. Undeclared War, however, struggles to provide sufficient canvas for Khalique-Brown to convey subtle gradations – it is rare for Kosminsky’s writing or direction here to properly accentuate his performance – and as a result it is difficult to grasp. character or actor. , both cast adrift in The Undeclared War’s half-baked guideline.
Ultimately, The Undeclared War might turn out to be one of those shows that’s easier to appreciate than outright love. Many of its individual building blocks are strong, and there are welcome flourishes throughout – the third episode, all in Russian, is a nicely ambitious move – which means that while the whole thing isn’t quite consistent fact, it never completely collapses. That is. If there’s a second series (as Simon Pegg has hinted on social media), it’ll still be worth watching – Peter Kosminsky’s drama is still a date, and it’ll be interesting to watch. see Khalique-Brown continue to develop the character. With any luck, however, any recovery might be able to better balance the two warring halves – or, better yet, bring the undeclared war to peace with itself.
The undeclared war broadcast on Channel 4 Thursday evenings at 9 p.m., each episode being available in a box set on All4. I watched all six episodes before writing this review. You can read more from our television reviews here.