As Americans poked at the notion of social-distance drama, some Englishmen went full-throttle.
They created four separate tales. Now “Isolation Stories” (shown here with Darren Boyd) reaches the U.S. on June 23, via the Britbox streaming service.
Each story is only 15 minutes long, but stuffed with strong drama. Individually, most are terrific; combined … well, they need a bit more variety.
With four stories, it would have been possible to sample a full spectrum of isolation – from rage and regret to love and laughter. Instead, “Isolation” mostly sticks to the dark side.
At least it does it beautifully, with sharp writing and subtle performances.
The idea started with writer Jeff Pope, an Academy Award nominee for “Philomena” (2013). His own family had just recovered from COVID-19 – mild for Pope and his two kids, but severe for his wife, who was almost hospitalized.
Pope brought in three more writers to create the four stories, then had each one shot under England’s strict social-distancing rules. Only members of a household were in a room together.
Often, that left spouses to hold the camera (with a director, watching via Zoom, offering suggestions in an earpiece). Since Darren Boyd was living alone, he used a stationary camera … which made sense for his character’s videochat with a psychiatrist.
Robert Glenister and his son Tom played a father (raging with bitterness as his fever grew) and son; Eddie Marsan did his story with his two sons. That left their wives – Celia Glenister and Janine Marsan – as one-person camera crews.
(Marsan’s story also required another actor – an old man outside the window. That was complicated by a rule limiting travel for everyone and banning it entirely for people 70 or older; the role went to David Threlfall, 66, who lived nearby.)
Then there was Sheridan Smith, playing someone who is alone and eight months pregnant. Her fiance held the camera; their baby was born May 9, five days after the episode aired in England.
That episode happens to be the most fully formed: It starts with mild humor, dips into stark agony, then rebounds with a sense of hope. Smith, a singer/actress, handles it all superbly.
Then the darkness returns, in the other three stories. The strongest moment has a feverish man mutter about his no-good son – unaware that he’s talking to that son.
Each story grasps for a tiny glimmer of hope. As the pain grows, we wish the glimmers were less tiny.
Some of these actors will be familiar to American viewers. Marsan was Ray’s brother in “Ray Donovan”; Boyd was Eve’s crooked ex-boss in the first year of “Killing Eve.”
But most are bigger stars in England. Threlfall was the shameless Frank Gallagher in the original, British version of “Shameless.”
And most are remarkably talented. They breathe live into intense dramas shot in their homes.