Litvinenko review: ITVX true crime drama with David Tennant is most interesting when it’s least conventional

David Tennant stars in Litvinenko, a true crime drama about the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko that could stand to be a little less like a true crime drama

Watch more of our videos on Shots!
and live on Freeview channel 276
Visit Shots! now

This review was originally published in December 2022, to coincide with Litvinenko's ITVX release. It has been lightly edited and republished to coincide with Litvinenko's ITV1 television broadcast.

Litvinenko is most interesting when it’s least conventional. It’s the latest in a string of ITV – well, ITVX – true crime dramas, and you can tell: it’s a process story built out of an identikit script, eschewing idiosyncratic detail and texture in favour of familiar cliches, reducing a knotty and complex story down to the most basic “yes guv, no guv” dialogue patterns possible. Take a scene from this, Granite Harbour, Ridley - whichever, really - remove the names, and hand it to someone, and they wouldn’t be able to tell one from the other. It’s anonymous, unremarkable, and easy to lose focus on.

That accounts for most of Litvinenko, anyway. While it’s not quite correct to call the series an anthology, each new episode shifts slightly, in effect following a new lead. The first sees Tennant as the former Russian security services agent Alexander Litvinenko as he becomes both sole witness and almost lead detective in his own murder investigation; the second follows DI Brent Hyatt (Neil Maskell) and DS Clive Timmons (Mark Bonnar) as they search London for the polonium used to poison Litvinenko; the third focuses primarily on DI Brian Tarpey’s (Sam Troughton) trip to Moscow to interview the lead suspect; the fourth and final episode follows Marina Litvinenko (Margarita Levieva) as she campaigns the police and British government to continue investigating her husband’s case, long after interest has waned.

The threads carry across each episode, but the weight and emphasis given to each character changes – and in turn so too does how engaging Litvinenko manages to be. The first episode is notable for its comparative novelty, the closest the series comes to engaging with how genuinely unusual Litvinenko’s story is, going on to lose sight of what’s worth telling about the story in favour of what isn’t (well-practiced screen shorthand for policework that Bonnar, Maskell, and Troughton have all done before many times over). It’s also the most the series is ever actually interested in Litvinenko, too, rather than the officers who no doubt did find themselves working late and having some sleepless nights while investigating the case; you’d be hard pressed, by the end of the series, to really describe Litvinenko the man or his political and ideological beliefs.

By comparison, the final episode – which takes place some years later, by which point active policework has largely ceased – is considerably more impressive. It picks up on the stronger threads of the middle episodes (the combative relationship between the Russian and British governments, the obstructive internal bureaucracy) and charts Marina Litvinenko’s increasingly desperate attempts to get the British government to hold a formal inquisition. Indeed, it almost spins the whole thing into something that looks intentional: form reflects content as the pedestrian, anodyne procedural smashes into something much bigger, the “ITV true crime drama” genre as unable to capture Litvinenko’s story as the relevant institutions were able to respond.

Mark Bonnar as DS Clive Timmons, working a late night shift alone, illuminated only by the glare of his desktop (Credit: ITVX)Mark Bonnar as DS Clive Timmons, working a late night shift alone, illuminated only by the glare of his desktop (Credit: ITVX)
Mark Bonnar as DS Clive Timmons, working a late night shift alone, illuminated only by the glare of his desktop (Credit: ITVX)

Of course, what’s also striking about that final episode – as much the attribute that makes it the best part of the series as any other, if not more – is that it’s the one that gives most space to Margarita Levieva. As Marina Litvinenko, Levieva is fantastic, giving the best performance by a considerable margin; it becomes a stronger show, really, if you understand the title not to reference Tennant as Alexander but Lieveva as Marina. Indeed, it’s easy to wish the show had committed more wholeheartedly to Marina’s perspective – more about her life, her son’s life, her campaign for justice for her husband – but it speaks to the strength of Levieva’s performance that Marina feels as rounded a character as she does, perhaps the only one who really seems to change and evolve and grow in the near-decade the show unfolds over.

The other performances are, generally, unremarkable. Bonnar, Troughton, and Maskell fall into that well-established tradition of casting wildly overqualified actors to flesh out wildly underwritten parts; Maskell fares best, but in the end all three have played variations on these roles before and presumably will again. Tennant, meanwhile, in his brief appearance – despite heavy advertising, his only substantial presence is in the first episode – feels a little too actor-ly, clearly approaching the role as a capital-I-Important chance to show his range. (As he did Des, though that was generally beloved; his best performance of the year – his best performance in years – came during Steven Moffat’s Inside Man, which was if nothing else not capital-I-important.)

Sometimes, Litvinenko feels like two programmes jostling against one another: the standard police procedural, rote and by the numbers, interchangeable with any other show; and the character drama, subtler and smarter, occasionally even offering flashes of genuine insight. Each gets in the way of the other – it lacks the cheap thrills and tacky voyeurism of most true crime drama, but lacks the clarity of focus of a well-observed biopic – and it’s hard not to wish Litvinenko the series hadn’t just committed one way or the other.

Litvinenko is available as a boxset on ITVX now, with an ITV1 broadcast scheduled for next year. I watched all four episodes before writing this review; you can read more of our TV reviews here.