Thursday, December 15, 2022

Litvenenko, on Sundance Now

In 2018, the “Salisbury” poisoning attacks on Sergei and Yulia Skripal fatally killed an innocent British subject, who had no connection to Russia whatsoever. It was a pretty brazen assassination attempt on British soil, but obviously Putin was not very impressed by the UK government’s response to his previous hit-job executed in England, against a naturalized British citizen, back in 2006. Of course, the authorities had to provide some proof before taking punitive action. That was the job of various detective and investigators of New Scotland Yard, whose procedural work drives the four-episode mini-series, Litvenenko, written by George Kay and directed by Jim Field Smith, which starts premieres tomorrow on Sundance Now.

It is spooky how much the once-and-future
Doctor Who David Tennant looks like Alexander Litvenenko, especially during his death bed scenes. The former FSB agent and outspoken critic of Putin’s “mafia state” (his own term), defected to the UK, becoming fully naturalized literally on the day of his poisoning. Initially, the somewhat fictionalized DI Brent Hyatt is not sure how to proceed, when the still living Litvenenko tries to report his own murder, like Edmund O’Brien in D.O.A. However, the interview tapes he records with the poisoned man supplied the foundation for the marathon investigation that followed.

Hyatt worked murders, which is a serious responsibility within the Yard, but a case like this was transferred to Detective Superintendent Clive Timmons, who oversaw the counter-terrorism office. He kept Hyatt and his DS attached to the case, because the DI had cultivated the trust of Litvenenko’s widow, Marina, and for his expertise investigating homicides. The case gets personal for Hyatt, since he saw Litvenenko waste away in the hospital. He also has his own scare, when the forensics department finally identifies Polonium 210 as the lethal agent involved. It is one of the deadliest Polonium isotopes known to man, but it is only produced in Russia.

Kay and Smith do a remarkable job establishing the damning case against Putin, without miring the series in minutiae. After watching
Litvenenko, you should be able to shut down any of his internet trolls who haven’t been drafted to be cannon fodder in his invasion of Ukraine. Obviously, this is an opportune time for series about Putin’s disregard for international law and human rights to release. However, it is most of all a cracking good police procedural-geopolitical spy thriller-hybrid.

For a change, Neil Maskell gets to play an unambiguous good guy—and he is terrific as Hyatt. The rapport he develops with Margarita Levieva playing Litvenenko’s widow is quite poignant. The same is true for his unfortunately limited scenes with Tennant in the doomed title role. It is sadly but necessarily a small part, but Tennant is totally convincing. Frankly, they needed someone of his caliber, to show how Litvenenko’s principled persona could take on such heroically tragic proportions.

Mark Bonnar is appropriately commanding as Timmons, but Kay never really unlocks the character. Ukrainian-born Israeli thesp Mark Ivanir does mostly selfless support work as the Litvenenkos’ family friend, Alexander Goldfarb, but his scene reading the just-passed Litvenenko’s final statement to the media outside his hospital is a homerun. (Frankly, Nikolai Tsankov is not such a strong likeness for Boris Berezovsky, but presumably he has the accent down pat—and it hardly matters anyway, because the exiled oligarch is discussed much more than seen.) Plus, Putin is cold, clammy, and altogether villainous in the real-life Russian TV footage incorporated throughout the series. Seriously, why would a Russian draftee want to die for this creep?

Litvenenko is really good TV. It is tough on Putin and pretty critical of the UK government’s own lack of urgency, while still being compulsively grabby viewing. I’m sure Putin and his apologists on the far right and far left don’t want you to watch, so you really should—most of all because its good. Highly recommended, Litvenenko starts streaming tomorrow (12/16) on Sundance Now.