The Russian Defector Who Says He Was Poisoned by Putin

Vladimir Putin’s villainy is damningly reconfirmed by Litvinenko, a four-part British TV series that pulls back the curtain on the not-so-mysterious death of Alexander Litvinenko, a Russian spy-turned-regime critic who fell ill in 2006 and blamed his condition on poisoning at the hands of the country’s leader. Premiering in the U.S. on Sundance Now on December 16, it’s part film noir, part investigative procedural, and part courtroom drama, and it points a damning finger at a tyrant who’s happy to kill in order to silence enemies and maintain power.

Based on research, interviews, and published accounts, director Jim Field Smith and Lupin writer George Kay’s fictionalized real-life tale is a companion piece to last year’s documentary Navalny. It begins on November 1, 2006, with Litvinenko (David Tennant) arriving at the London home he shares with wife Marina (The Deuce’s Margarita Levieva) and son Anatoly (Temirlan Blaev).

A sudden bout of puking interrupts his evening. Less than two weeks later, detective Brent Hyatt (Neil Maskell) arrives at the hospital to investigate Litvinenko’s claims—dismissed by his attending physicians—that he’s the victim of Thallium poisoning. Totally bald and gravely ill, Litvinenko informs Hyatt that he’ll be dead in a few days, and he convinces the cop to listen to his story. He knows how this happened, when, and, most importantly, why.

Litvinenko thus reports his own murder à la 1950’s classic noir D.O.A., and much of the miniseries’ subsequent action revolves around law enforcement’s efforts to verify his tale. Embodied by Tennant with a physical frailty that’s at odds with his level-headed demeanor and staunch determination and defiance, Litvinenko is convinced that he’s fallen ill due to nefariousness on the part of Putin, who was his former boss.

As Litvinenko explains, he worked as a senior officer in the FSB (i.e. the modern KGB), and his job involved assassinating state adversaries. Yet after discovering corruption, he had informed Putin, who had dismissed the allegations, forcing Litvinenko to relocate himself and his clan to the UK. They assumed new names and he wrote a book (Blowing Up Russia: Terror from Within) that aired the FSB’s dirty laundry. This had made him a prime Putin target, resulting—according to him—in his dire present circumstances.

“I am troublemaker,” croaks Litvinenko, and with Marina’s help, he’s soon publicizing his accusations in the media, thereby affording Hyatt the public-sentiment push he needs to get his superiors to care about the case. That joint-department endeavor is led by Clive Timmons (Mark Bonnar), a no-nonsense fellow who relishes this once-in-a-lifetime spy assignment. Along with reluctantly participating detective Brian Tarpey (Sam Troughton), he spearheads a multifaceted inquiry into what’s taken place.

While he’s initially stymied by the fact that Litvinenko is still alive—meaning this isn’t yet a homicide case—that doesn’t last for long, as on November 23, 2006, Litvinenko succumbs to his incurable poisoning, which by then has been accurately attributed to polonium-210, a radioactive material that one expert dubs “the most dangerous substance known to man.” It’s also, it turns out, something that’s only produced in Russia—one of many clues that leads back to Litvinenko’s native land.

The proceedings’ nominal headliner, Tennant—courtesy of his character’s demise—exits stage left following Litvinenko’s premiere episode, ceding the spotlight to Bonnar, Maskell, and Troughton. Their characters quickly focus on the two men, Andrei Lugovoy and Dmitry Kovtun, whom Litvinenko met on November 1 at the bar of the Millennium Hotel.

Those individuals pretended to be Litvinenko’s allies, but their connection to polonium-210 quickly becomes incontrovertible. Traces of the radioactive agent turning up at every location they visited or surface they contacted, be it their airplane seats, their hotel room sink, or the teapot from which they served Litvinenko during their encounter. The series details this sleuthing in step-by-step fashion that has the feel of a suspenseful true-crime thriller, as well as the outrage of a political critique.

Litvinenko’s early passages are peppered with praise for Britain as a great country with the best cops and scientists in the world, and its ensuing action aims to justify that viewpoint, as Timmons, Hyatt, and Tarpey set about gathering evidence that will conclusively prove Lugovoy and Kovtun committed murder. Unsurprisingly, their mission is thwarted by Russia, which allows Tarpey to visit in order to interview the two suspects, only to play games and impede those chats.

The nation’s uncooperativeness, however, underscores that it has something to hide, and by the end of the show’s third episode, there’s little remaining doubt that Litvinenko was targeted and assassinated by Putin’s regime as payback for his outspokenness—and, moreover, that polonium-210 was used not only because of its deadliness, but because its Russian origins made it a veritable Putin “calling card.”

Having demonstrated Russia’s guilt, Litvinenko turns its attention to holding the country publicly, politically and legally responsible—a task that, as Marina learns, is complicated by the fact that many in the British government are in bed with Russia and therefore don’t want to ruffle its feathers. With the aid of lawyer Ben Emmerson (Stephen Campbell Moore), though, she presses onward, albeit in a fourth episode that somewhat spins its wheels.

Marina’s attempts to get a public inquiry held that might motivate Theresa May’s administration to do something about Russia’s terrorist actions are noble, but in purely dramatic terms, they’re handled sluggishly, and with an inevitability that drains them of tension. That leaves the series’ closing installment something of a well-intentioned letdown, not to mention a moderately clunky one, courtesy of an abrupt time jump that exacerbates the climax’s rushed nature.

Largely because its arguments have already been persuasively made, and also because there’s been no real justice for the murder of its subject, Litvinenko runs out of steam before it reaches its destination. Still, thanks to a collection of sturdy performances and a clear-sighted recitation of the evidence, it lays bare Putin’s willingness to go to extreme measures to achieve his ends—and, in doing so, suggests that he won’t change his malevolent ways (see: Alexander Navalny, or the ongoing war in Ukraine) until someone stops him.

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