Litvinenko Review: David Tennant Stars in Line of Duty With a Russian Twist
ITV’s true-crime drama about the 2006 poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko is a bold, powerful, furious statement on high-scale corruption. Spoilers.
WARNING: This review contains spoilers for all four episodes of Litvinenko
Truth is stranger than fiction, they say – and Litvinenko shows why this is a gift to crime dramas. So often fictional crime dramas try to be too slick, too perfectly believable, but real life is messier, more mundane, more ridiculous than what most of us can imagine, and all the better for it.
Litvinenko doesn’t muck about, either – after the briefest of glimpses into what normal life looks like for the Litvinenko family in 2006 (Alexander, wife Marina, and son Anatoly) within five minutes we’re in hospital, and a wan, now-bald Litvinenko (David Tennant) is telling detectives he’s been poisoned, helping them solve his own murder even as he’s dying.
Yes, David Tennant with a Russian accent requires a mighty suspension of disbelief, but if any actor can take such a jarring adjustment and guide us via a convincing, skilful performance to a rapid place of acceptance, it’s Tennant. Frankly, he makes it look easy, and within moments the transfiguration is complete: he simply is Litvinenko.
If such a transformation is disorienting, it fits in well with the overall vibe of the first episode, with the dark subject matter, eerie camerawork and bleak hospital setting leaving us feeling out of our depth and uneasy, even though we the audience know far more about what’s happening than the characters on screen. The arrivals of DI Brent Hyatt (Neil Maskell, Small Axe) and DS Clive Timmons (Mark Bonnar, Unforgotten) are a welcome steady presence and safe pairs of hands in the rapidly escalating chaos, as the ripple effects of the investigation expand to cover ever more police, experts, translators, witnesses, and the scale of what is happening becomes understood.
We also learn that not only did one of Litvinenko’s former colleagues in Russian Security Services most likely poison him – the orders possibly came from Putin himself. In the taut, tense first episode, Tennant as Litvinenko is the standout presence, so even though we know his death is imminent, its arrival is still shocking. And tragic, too – Tennant does an awful lot in just one episode to endear us to the man at the centre of this well-known murder.
Taking over as the star for episode two is Polonium-210, the radioactive metal used as the murder weapon in this case, earning Litvinenko a spot in the Guinness Book of Records as the first person murdered by radiation. While unsettling camera angles use sunlight and reflections to emphasise the surreality and tension, sinister figures in yellow hazmat suits invade the everyday places Litvinenko visited before he died – a hotel bar, a branch of sushi restaurant chain Itsu, his family bathroom – wielding their furiously clicking geiger counters. Never has a teapot looked so sinister.
The stakes of this story are once again raised: unlike most murders, we realise Litvinenko’s death puts countless other lives at risk, as the prospect of fatal Polonium traces being left behind in these locations becomes a potential public health emergency. Not only that, the increasingly obvious fact that this is a state-sanctioned murder means solving it seriously risks international relations – and no country wants to get on Russia’s bad side.
But rather than becoming akin to a high-stakes disaster movie, Litvinenko takes a welcome turn down the route of good old-fashioned police work. As DC Timmons says, when you strip away the Russian spies and the Polonium, what do you get? ‘A murder. We’ve got a victim, crime scene, we’ve even got suspects.’
The investigators aren’t gallant, trigger-happy heroes; they’re ordinary, dry-humoured, dogged, and more likely to use a photocopier or tape recorder than a gun to catch their killers. They also provide some welcome levity to such a serious, real-life murder investigation, with particularly entertaining performances from Sam Troughton (Chernobyl) as DI Tarpey and Kayla Meikle (The Capture) as DC Maxwell.
Indeed, that shrewd, tenacious police work becomes the focus of episode three. And like all good crime dramas, frustration builds as the detectives come up against obstacles and dead ends while solving the case, only in Litvinenko that obstacle is large indeed: the Russian regime itself.
In fact, we’d recommend hiding any potential nearby missiles while you watch the detectives’ visit to Moscow, as it’s hard to resist throwing something at the telly. The lengths the Russians go to in order to sabotage the investigation are genuinely infuriating, revealed in a cleverly paced sequence of increasing absurdity. First, the arbitrary rules, the disrupted phone signal, then one of the detectives becoming suspiciously ill. But then the interviews of the two suspects finally happen: one ends up being with a tight-lipped man wrapped in bandages who could have been anyone, the next an intense, cleverly written scene like an episode of Line of Duty with hazmat suits.
Litvinenko is already a slick production, but it really comes into its own here. The soundtrack, the cinematography, the lighting, it all emphasises the farce of the investigation, culminating in the almost hammy scene back in the UK when they discover it was all for nothing: the Russians have wiped the interview tapes, the investigation can proceed no further.
Against these overwhelming odds, it’s Marina Litvinenko’s time to shine in the final episode, which – unlike so many modern dramas – really delivers on all Litvinenko’s early promise. Marina (Margarita Levieva, Revenge) has thus far been a solitary figure conveying her agony silently, stoically, but in her relentlessly determined, extraordinarily brave fight for a public enquiry, she is anything but the passive ‘wife of’ Litvinenko – this is no longer her husband’s story, it’s hers.
Much of the final episode is raw fury, voiced via Marina’s lawyer at the inquest, Ben Emmerson (Stephen Campbell Moore, War of the Worlds). But it’s not just rage at Putin’s corrupt, soulless regime but at the institutions and people in positions of power who enable it – or ‘dance to Putin’s drum’, as Emmerson puts it – here in the UK. These institutions block Marina’s fight for justice in an endless stream of cold, stuffy government buildings for a decade until we see Theresa May do a classic u-turn, at first blocking the inquest, then admitting its justification years later once the verdict is in.
Despite some heavy-handed foreshadowing, an unnecessary hint of romance between Marina and Ben, and a superfluous subplot between DI Hyatt and his wife, Litvinenko is an important, relevant drama – especially when you consider its release comes in the year Putin invaded Ukraine. Seeing Putin himself in on-screen footage, dismissing the accusation he ordered Litvinenko’s murder by childishly claiming he’s ‘not important’ enough to bother with, you have to remind yourself this is the man in charge of the largest country in the world. Once again, truth is stranger than fiction.
Litvinenko is available to stream now on ITVX in the UK. It will stream on AMC+ in the US on the 16th of December.