Litvinenko recap: David Tennant takes a backseat in a surprisingly low-stakes assassination drama

The world looked different in 2006 when former FSB agent Alexander Litvinenko made headlines around the world. That was years before Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, the poisoning of Sergei Skripal in 2018, and even longer before the 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 streaming service ITVX reveals, everything started to change with a drop of polonium in a teapot.

The Litvinenko story unraveled extremely quickly. Three weeks into his illness, Litvinenko was dead — and by that time his face had been spattered on newspapers around the world. Kay’s series takes the same approach: within the first few seconds, Litvinenko (David Tennant, initially draped like PJ & Duncan-era Declan Donnelly) vomits into a toilet. At the end of the episode he will be dead. It leaves the rest of the series to deal with the aftermath, both the criminal investigation and its diplomatic complications.

“What you’re working on,” Mark Bonnar’s gruff DS Clive Timmins announces to his team, “is the first homicide investigation where no one actually died!” That’s the job of precognition that the police take on and are at the center of Litvinenko. Among the officers in the spotlight are Neil Maskell’s Brent Hyatt (the first to take Litvinenko’s testimony) and DI Brian Tarpey (Sam Troughton), who is sent to Moscow. The investigation was forensic and the show takes a forensic approach. This somewhat uncinematic commitment to truthfulness involves plenty of hazmat suits, Geiger counters, and mispronunciations of Itsu.

Craig Mazin’s acclaimed 2019 miniseries Chernobyl is perhaps the inspiration here. As Litvinenko, it told a serious story where the outcome was already known to the audience (and also perfected lengthy discussions about radiation poisoning). But Mazin’s series has also managed to make the “system” its antagonist, turning the debris into a sense of danger. “His name…” Litvinenko croaks from his sickbed, “…is Vladimir Putin.” But of course we already know that Putin is the bad guy – and the show, which was compiled from police interviews and with the assistance of Litvinenko’s wife Marina (performed here by an excellent Margarita Levieva) and son Anatoly does not apply much scrutiny to the British police investigation.

By the end of the first episode, Litvinenko will be dead


But even when the stakes feel bizarrely low (especially for a show about an international conspiracy), the action is handsomely constructed. The mid-noughties hardly have the smoky glamor of the Cold War, but from the action in Moscow’s post-Soviet dining rooms to the sidewalks of Piccadilly, Litvinenko plays his drama on a big stage. With Tennant involved in the project, this could easily have turned into an intimate character study (like his portrayal of Dennis Nilsen on ITV’s Of). Instead, Tennant — with a distracting bald head and a distracting Russian accent — barely has a role in the drama. This is about wrong turns, diversionary maneuvers and dead ends of the investigations. The encrypted presence of Timmins, Hyatt and Tarpey makes Litvinenko Feels like it could have been taken from the transcript of a select committee inquiry.

But there is no escaping how devastating and fascinating the Litvinenko case is. Murder, on the streets of London, with what, according to one show expert, “is universally accepted the most dangerous substance known to man”. Litvinenko is sensitive and tactful, almost to the point of failure. But in a world where complex questions about Anglo-Russian relations dominate discussions in the corridors of power, this has little to add except slack astonishment. Litvinenko recap: David Tennant takes a backseat in a surprisingly low-stakes assassination drama


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