True Story of Poisoning Gets Superficial Dramatization

Jan 10, 2023

Home TV Reviews ‘Litvinenko’ Review: True Story of 2006 Poisoning Gets Superficial Dramatization

Featuring David Tennant as the murdered Russian defector, this series doesn’t give full life to the man or his subsequent death.

Image via AMC+

November 1, 2006. A man, who we will briefly come to know as Alexander Litvinenko (David Tennant) returns home to his family. It is a night that begins as a celebration, though soon takes a grim turn when he falls seriously ill. We then cut to more than two weeks later where he now lies dying in a London hospital. He says that he was poisoned, but no one believes him — that is, until he is visited by the initially skeptical Scotland Yard officer Brent Hyatt (Neil Maskell) who begins to look into what happened. Based on the true story of the former KGB agent who became known as “the man who solved his own murder,” it is one of those smaller shows that has an incredible amount of potential to it. Unfortunately, in execution, Litvinenko is a middling miniseries that is sporadically interesting though ultimately never comes together, even as it grasps at something more. For all its committed performances, it is a work whose dramatic elements are too haphazardly and hurriedly sketched to leave an impact.

The title itself is a bit of a misnomer, as this isn’t really about Litvinenko. We do begin with him and a glimpse of his relationship with his wife Marina (Margarita Levieva) who remains a central part even after he meets his untimely end. However, it is mostly about the various components of the investigation and the people that undertook it. It starts with Hyatt who sits down for a series of reenacted interviews with Litvinenko as he grows weaker and weaker, the reality of his looming demise crashing into the need to get as much information as possible to figure out who brought him to death’s door. While Hyatt is often the emotional focal point, he gets lost in the story as we then shift to a variety of other aspects of the investigation that would become one of the most significant in the history of the Metropolitan Police. Leading this is DS Clive Timmons (Mark Bonnar) who is tasked with doing all he can to get to the truth as it moves from being what is considered a suspicious death to a murder that Litvinenko and his loved ones say was retaliation from the Kremlin for him criticizing them.

Image via AMC+

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As with any true story, the investment comes not from any discovery at the end. The results of the investigation are fixed and, especially for those who have followed it over the last several years, common knowledge. The show then must strive to tap into something revealing about what it is that was happening behind closed doors, outside the public eye. In that regard, the miniseries that kept bouncing around my head was 2019’s crushing Chernobyl. While the scale of the crisis in that story is vastly different, it felt as though there was some connective tissue between each of them. The longer it goes on, the more it becomes clear that Litvinenko is fundamentally about the small moments of bureaucracy that take place in an attempt to find truth and justice. Chernobyl was similarly about a buildup of small moments of corruption that led to catastrophe. There was hardly any spectacle to it as it told a more grounded story that strove for authenticity in uncovering the unseen moments of evil. This moment in history is even referenced in a throwaway line in the process of the investigation as a potential invitation for a conversation between the two. It felt like the series could then follow in similar footsteps, only for it to repeatedly stumble and fall.

When not a study of Litvinenko himself, there is little that we can cling to. We don’t know much of who the man was before he met his end, with information only given in small pieces based on what he and his wife tell the officers. There is nigh a flashback in sight, ensuring there is little depth given to the history that led him to this moment. Even as this may be a blessing in disguise, as what we do get of Tennant is mostly him acting to the scattered accent as opposed to the nuances of the character, that he gets swept away so quickly leaves the series flailing. It then falls to Maskell, who remains an underrated actor for his magnificent yet unsettling work in the original Utopia series alone, to shoulder the story. Though he plays a much more understated role in this show, the quieter moments where we get to see his character grappling with the immense weight of the case shine. The conversations he shares with Marina, be it up on a roof or in the confines of a room, prove to be more compelling than anything else in the series. They provide a hint of an engaging emotional core to what is an otherwise by-the-numbers and superficial story. Had the series spent more time with them and invested more energy into their stories, perhaps the rest of the experience would draw us in further. Instead, the show never uncovers much of any profound truths, either about what happened or how it shaped the people left to pick up the broken pieces.

Image via AMC+

By the time we get further into the series, it makes a pivot towards being a bit more focused on Marina’s attempts at going through legal mechanisms to hold those responsible for the murder. While these developments ought to give it all a bit more spark and intrigue, it is again a case of how the way it is portrayed is nowhere near as delicate or dynamic as it should be. As the months turn to years in the blink of an eye and the frustration of all involved reaches a fever pitch with any remaining hope growing further and further out of reach, the series tries to turn its attention more fully on how governments can fall far short in looking out for its people. It is an admirable attempt in profiling the work of a determined few, but it comes far too late to convey the impact that it should. For all the significance a story like this holds in recent history and our present moment, Litvinenko lacks the courage of its convictions to do it justice.

Rating: C+

You can see all four episodes of Litvinenko on AMC+ & Sundance Now starting December 16.

Disclaimer: This story is auto-aggregated by a computer program and has not been created or edited by filmibee.
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