The Undeclared War review: Channel 4 drama falters when Peter Kosminsky blends political and domestic drama

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

The Undeclared War isn’t one television show, it’s two, each jostling for space. One of them is better than the other. More often than not, unfortunately, it’s the weaker of the two shows that wins out.

The first is, as advertised, a cutting-edge espionage thriller, a state-of-the-nation drama that blends political intrigue with densely researched plotlines ripped straight from the headlines. It’s classically Peter Kosminsky in premise, style, and tone, recalling in particular 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 some fifteen months earlier, is looking to shore up 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 United Kingdom – the internet goes down. Not just for GCHQ, where the test is being performed, but across the country: major email providers are down, Zoom stops working, all online shopping ceases, hundreds of thousands of hospital appointments are missed. It’s a huge disruption of Britain’s digital infrastructure – but it’s also clearly a targeted one, too. It’s not long before PM Makinde is calling for a swift retaliation against Russia, believed to be the most likely aggressor.

The Undeclared War is much more comfortable in this register – maybe not thriving exactly, but certainly the first of its two shows is the stronger one. As an espionage thriller, it’s well-structured, with a strong sense of how best to develop and intensify its story; the twists and escalations are parcelled out well, with tension mounting nicely across The Undeclared War’s six episodes. There’s also, characteristically of Kosminsky, a sense of something that’s been very intensely researched – little procedural details, like where GCHQ’s jurisdiction ends in an increasingly militarised context, lend the series a nicely lived-in texture.

The political intrigue, insofar as it intersects with the espionage thriller, works well too. Simon Pegg and Alex Jennings impress as the last voices of moderation, increasingly doubtful of their own position and at risk of being crowded out by more jingoistic impulses; Adrian Lester gives a nicely brittle performance as a Prime Minister determined not to publicly betray his own insecurity. In terms of how the series is grounded more generally, it’s perhaps a little less politically robust than previous efforts like Britz and The State, strong on details but lacking an underlying perspective to unify the research and the drama – it manages, but disappoints compared to the memory of Kosminsky’s earlier work.

Hannah Khalique-Brown as Saara Parvin, sat across from Mark Rylance as John Yeabsley. She has a green apple on the plate in front of her, and he is writing in a notebook with a yellow pencil (Credit: Manuel Vazquez/Channel 4)

Where The Undeclared War really struggles, though, is in the second show that makes up its two halves. The espionage thriller and political intrigue is framed by domestic drama, charting the home life of our point of view character Saara (Hannah Khalique-Brown), a work experience student who is first to understand the magnitude of the Russian cyber-attack. It’s often an ungainly combination, rarely rising above dramatic dead weight and tending to diminish the work done elsewhere – for all that The Undeclared War is clearly a well-researched piece, for example, it never quite convinces that a work experience student would be granted as much latitude or independence as Saara is over the course of the story.

Worse, though, it simply feels like quite an underwritten part of the series. Compared to the political/espionage threads, The Undeclared War’s domestic drama demonstrates a surprising lack of confidence. It falls back on recognisable plotlines, with its twists and turns telegraphed from a mile away, and frequently feels the need to make explicit what could easily be left as subtext (if Mark Rylance and Khalique-Brown are sharing screentime, being affectionate to one another, we can read that as a paternal relationship without needing Saara to literally say “you remind me of my father”). There’s a sense perhaps that this is the work of a writer outside their comfort zone, less able to lean on extensive research when weaving in this other story.

It’s something of a shame, because Khalique-Brown’s performance is one of the more intriguing aspects of The Undeclared War, and she’s not always necessarily best-served by the material. Saara is quite stilted and reserved, often brusque and rude, with few concessions to charming the audience; Khalique-Brown’s performance, in turn, is interestingly muted, positioning the character at something of a remove. The Undeclared War struggles, though, to provide ample canvas for Khalique-Brown to convey subtle gradations – it’s rare for Kosminsky’s writing or direction here to properly accentuate her performance – and as a result it’s difficult to get a grip on the character or the actor, both cast adrift in The Undeclared War’s half-baked throughline.

Ultimately, The Undeclared War might prove to be one of those shows that’s easier to appreciate than to straightforwardly like. Many of its individual constituent parts are strong, and there are welcome flourishes throughout – the third episode, entirely in Russian, is a nicely ambitious gesture – which mean that, even though the whole doesn’t quite cohere, it also never falls apart entirely either. If there is a second series (as Simon Pegg has alluded on social media), it’ll still be worth watching – Peter Kosminsky drama is still appointment viewing, and it’ll be interesting to see Khalique-Brown continue to develop the character. Hopefully, though, any reprise might be able to better balance the two warring halves with one another – or, even better, bring The Undeclared War at peace with itself.

The Undeclared War airs on Channel 4 on Thursday nights at 9pm, with every episode available as part of a boxset on All4. I watched all six episodes before writing this review. You can read more of our TV reviews here.