Litvinenko review: David Tennant makes this must-watch TV
On 23 November, 2006 Alexander ‘Sasha’ Litvinenko died from polonium poisoning in a London hospital. Litvinenko, a new ITV drama — streaming on ITVX now — dramatises the events drawing from every shred of available evidence.
In doing so, creators Jim Field Smith (Truth Seekers) and George Kay (Criminal UK) have created a series with real punching power.
With David Tennant on eerily immersive form as Litvinenko, this four-part drama takes its time uncovering every twist and turn, while he holds court from his hospital bed.
Not only is this a performance which eradicates any hint of the character actor audiences may know, but instantly makes the programme essential viewing.
Read more: What happened to Alexander Litvinenko?
Propped up on pillows as the polonium poisoning drains him dry, Litvinenko recounts his time in Moscow under former Federal Security Bureau (FSB) chief Vladimir Putin, as well as establishing the reasons why he was murdered.
With UK national newspapers providing country wide coverage, this bedside vigil soon becomes the biggest case in Metropolitan Police history.
As a former Russian FSB operative and recently approved British citizen, Sasha had settled in the UK under an assumed name with his wife Marina (Margarita Levieva) and son Anatoly (Temirlan Blaev). Following a fundamental disagreement with his Russian superiors, an attempt was made on Sasha’s life, which led to his hospital admission on 1 November for alleged poisoning.
Sixteen days later, on 17 November, Detective Inspector Brent Hyatt (Neil Maskell) and Detective Sergeant Jim Dawson were called to investigate those allegations. Over the next three days, Litvinenko told them everything, from his reasons for being in Britain, through to the man he held responsible for his murder – Putin.
Read more: What is ITVX?
Equal parts police procedural, espionage drama and intimate character study: Litvinenko is riveting stuff. Over that opening hour various threads of the Metropolitan Police are introduced, as it becomes apparent how much this poisoning will impact on the populous.
Elsewhere, cogs are slowly turning as nefarious parties outside of UK jurisdiction start putting countermeasures in place. From the moment of Litvinenko's death, the show becomes a slow burn thriller of two halves, with an immersive murder mystery facing off against a politically driven court room drama.
With agenda driven parties on all sides, from the influential micro-biologist Alexander Goldfarb (Mark Ivanir) to the implicated FSB agent Andrei Lugovoy (Radislaw Kaim) — events continue gaining momentum.
With two hundred people working over 10 years and racking up 40,000 hours in the process, this case was no small undertaking.
Beyond the immense amount of resource devoted to this moment in history, what the programme eloquently illustrates is how political motivations almost always stand in the way of progress.
Trade deals, international relations and justice often run a poor second to governments intent on exploiting the situation for their own ends.
Read more: David Tennant celebrates Doctor Who day
As lines of inquiry are systematically closed off and the Metropolitan Police inquiry winds down, Marina Litvinenko is forced to enlist barrister Ben Emmerson (Stephen Campbell-Moore).
What follows is a protracted crusade played out in public and through the press, which concludes with then-PM Theresa May authorising an inquiry.
In contemporary terms, the release of Litvinenko could not be better timed, given Russia’s current global standing with Putin still pulling rank.
What Jim Field Smith and George Kay have created here is a slice of television drama which eloquently highlights the problem with those in power. Although democracy dictates that no single decision comes down to one political party, accountability on this occasion seems to sit with our current government.
With Theresa May bookending this series and David Cameron appearing in re-created newspaper mock-ups, Litvinenko’s story stretches far beyond his hospital room.
In many regards this ITVX original feels more like a Cold War John le Carre adaptation, with contemporary technology subtly used to augment investigative techniques. Russian characters are given a stereotypically stony exterior, while the depiction of their regime in Moscow is archetypal at best.
Read more: Doctor Who fans thrilled by return of David Tennant
Those niggles aside, Litvinenko proves to be a comprehensive piece of entertainment with endless amounts of depth. In the main, characters are drawn with a great degree of care and consideration, while Jim Field Smith and George Kay judiciously employ flashbacks to fully inform the audience.
Watch a trailer for Litvinenko
Beyond Tennant, who deserves every accolade going for his portrayal of Litvinenko, Maskell deserves equal amounts of kudos for imbuing Brent Hyatt with a gallantry, which sees him convince as both an investigating officer and wannabe family man.
Above and beyond that, Mark Bonnar also deserves a mention for his work as Clive Timmons, who consistently goes to bat for Marina Litvinenko.
For audiences looking for companion pieces on ITVX this festive season, look no further than A Spy Amongst Friends alongside Litvinenko. Two complementary dramas, which should ensure this fledgling service captures the attention of audiences spoilt for choice in 2023.
Litvinenko will be available to stream exclusively on ITVX from 15 December.