Litvinenko Season 1 Review – True-life drama is authentic to a fault

Season 1

Episode Guide

Episode 1 -| Review Score – 4/5
Episode 2 -| Review Score – 3.5/5
Episode 3 -| Review Score – 3.5/5
Episode 4 -| Review Score – 2.5/5


Alexander Litvinenko’s incredulous murder sent shockwaves through international politics. Domestically1, the British government came under fire for their suggested involvement in the messy cover-up post the trial by the CPS. It was one of the most extraordinary events of the 2000’s, at one time even viewed as a gross act of trans border terrorism. However, at the core of that story was the fight for justice.

A grieving family against an entire regime; sovereign institutes that are too powerful to take on. BBC’s drama series captures that fighting spirit – not just of the Litvinenko family – but also the honest cop, doctor, and other public servants on the payroll refusing to budge their morality.

The four part series offers a three dimensional look at the entire episode. At first, it starts as an intriguing story of a former KGB spy with dubious ties to his home state. But as the tapes begin recording, his account unravels a deeply concerning conspiracy and a potential act of terrorism of great magnitude on British soil. From that intrigue, the series then takes a strict turn toward becoming a police procedural. Like an authentic investigation, the case reaches its evidence gathering stage.

And finally, Litvinenko concludes with the fight in courts using the laws in place to protect the rights of individuals against arbitrary State power. It definitely comes full circle in the end and that is why the overall likeness of the series is of a documentary. The treatment of story from start to finish was levelheaded and authentic to the facts. A disclaimer before every episode starts reveals that the story is based on true events and extensively researched interviews and other materials. And from how it all unfurls, that hard work really flies through.

In the process of dramatizing the story and adapting it for television, the makers wanted to give a complete account, even with the creative liberties, of what happened behind closed doors. The premiere promised that there will be some degree of emotional juxtaposition of the family before and after Litvinenko’s death. But that takes secondary importance to the procedural element of the storytelling.

Although it is not completely bereft, Litvinenko remains mostly detached from the instincts that filmmakers often give in to while telling a story of this emotional gravitas. David Tennant made all the highlights with his changed avatar but he only appeared for the first episode.

Unnecessary amount of criticism was directed toward the star, who did a decent enough job in his guest appearance. The fate of Litvinenko did not hinge on how he inhabited the character and any characterizations to that point are inherently unfair. What was wrong with his portrayal? Haven’t all Russian guys in films been shown to talk like that in English? I for one could not see the distinction that got people unsettled. Litviennko’s fate was ultimately decided by BBC’s enthusiasm to follow real facts and make sure to see the effort through with minimal distractions.

Despite that happening, Litvinenko does not get full marks. The finale felt really out of place and abrupt, even, given how the first three episodes panned out. All of a sudden, Ben Emmerson became the protagonist and the makers felt playing catchup, leaving too much ground to cover in one episode. The scenes in Russia were perhaps a bit overplayed and tighter management could have led to a more wholesome resolution to the case. We saw too little of Marina and the support she received from Litvinenko’s Russian benefactors in London.

Their role felt completely neglected by the makers, who had a hint of bias in how they represented British police officers and the justice system as the heroes. Without comprehensive knowledge about the facts, it would be ignorant to continue on that point but that was my perspective as an outsider looking in. The quirky comedic undertone that we got through Tubs should have been stretched to all the episodes.

Those little moments of reprieve provided a breather from following the complex story and everything that was going on. The end result perhaps became a little too stern but that is not necessarily a bad thing. Litvinenko’s designs meant that there was little room for accommodating drama or histrionics.

That creative choice, in hindsight, makes it a more of a documentarian effort rather than a true-blooded adaptation. But the lack of dramatic flair and heft should not deter viewers from watching this levelheaded rendition of Carter v. Russia, a case that is even today a reminder of the importance to keep State’s abuse of power in check.

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  • Verdict - 6.5/10

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