Litvinenko review: David Tennant takes a back seat in surprisingly low-stake assassination drama

Armed with a distracting accent and bald cap, David Tennant plays poisoned former FSB agent Alexander Litvinenko

Nick Hilton
Thursday 15 December 2022 06:30 GMT
Alexander Litvinenko (David Tennant) and his wife Marina (an excellent Margarita Levieva)
Alexander Litvinenko (David Tennant) and his wife Marina (an excellent Margarita Levieva) (ITV)

The world was a different place in 2006 when former FSB agent Alexander Litvinenko hit global headlines. This was years before Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, the poisoning of Sergei Skripal in 2018, and even longer before its invasion of Ukraine earlier this year. This was a strange time when Vladimir Putin was still hanging out with George W Bush and Tony Blair; still a tolerated member of the international community. But, as screenwriter George Kay’s new drama on the ITVX streaming service shows, that all began to change with a drop of polonium in a teapot.

The Litvinenko story unravelled extremely quickly. Three weeks after falling ill, Litvinenko was dead – and by that point, his face had been splashed on newspapers around the world. Kay’s series takes the same approach: within the first few seconds, Litvinenko (David Tennant, at first sporting curtains like PJ & Duncan-era Declan Donnelly) is vomiting into a toilet. By the end of the episode, he will be dead. It leaves the rest of the series to deal with the fallout, both the criminal investigation and its diplomatic complications.

“What you’re working on,” announces Mark Bonnar’s gruff DS Clive Timmins to his team, “is the first murder investigation where no one’s actually died!” This is the task of precognition that the police undertake, and which forms the centre of Litvinenko. Among the officers in the spotlight are Neil Maskell’s Brent Hyatt (the first person to take Litvinenko’s statement) and DI Brian Tarpey (Sam Troughton) who is sent to Moscow. The investigation was forensic and the show takes a forensic approach. This, slightly uncinematic, commitment to verisimilitude involves a lot of hazmat suits, Geiger counters and mispronunciations of Itsu.

Craig Mazin’s acclaimed 2019 miniseries Chernobyl is, perhaps, the inspiration here. Like Litvinenko, it told a serious story where the outcome was already known to the audience (and also perfected long-winded discussions of radiation poisoning). But Mazin’s series also managed to turn the “system” into its antagonist, creating a sense of jeopardy from the rubble. “His name…” Litvinenko croaks from his sickbed, “ Vladimir Putin.” But, of course, we already know that Putin is the baddie – and the show, compiled from police interviews and made with the support of Litvinenko’s wife Marina (played here by an excellent Margarita Levieva) and son Anatoly, doesn’t apply much scrutiny to the British police investigation.

By the end of the first episode, Litvinenko will be dead (ITV)

But even if the stakes feel bizarrely low (especially for a show about an international conspiracy), the action is handsomely mounted. The mid-Noughties hardly have the smoke-filled glamour of the Cold War, yet from the action in Moscow’s post-Soviet dining rooms to the pavements of Piccadilly, Litvinenko plays out its drama on a grand stage. With Tennant attached to the project, this could easily have turned into an intimate character study (like his depiction of Dennis Nilsen in ITV’s Des). Instead, Tennant – with a distracting bald cap and distracting Russian accent – barely features in the drama. This is all about the wrong turns, red herrings and blind alleys of the investigation. The cipherlike presence of Timmins, Hyatt and Tarpey makes Litvinenko feel as though it could’ve been adapted from the minutes of a select committee enquiry.

But there’s no escaping just how devastating and fascinating the Litvinenko case is. Murder, on the streets of London, using what is – as an expert on the show opines – ”commonly accepted to be the most dangerous substance known to man”. Litvinenko is sensitive and tactful, almost to a fault. But in a world where complex questions about Anglo-Russian relations dominate discussions in the corridors of power, it has little to add other than slack-jawed amazement.

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