Are we watching or not? Murder of Polonium – The Litvinenko Affair (M6)
The series chronicles the infamous Litvinenko affair, with effectiveness but marred by a slightly too harsh approach.
What is Litvinenko? 2006 London. A man (David Tennant) returns home to his wife Marina (Margarita Levieva) and son. Shortly after dinner he becomes nauseous and begins to vomit blood. Sixteen days later, weakened and deathly pale, he is visited in the hospital by police officers Brent Hyatt (Neil Maskell) and Jim Dawson (Barry Sloane). He reveals his identity to them: his name is Alexander Litvinenko, he is a defected ex-agent of the Russian FSB and believes he was poisoned. The manager? Vladimir Poutine. Initially incredulous, the two police officers collect his witness statements and investigate the murder of this man who is not yet dead – without suspecting the effects of this delicate affair.
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The case made headlines, shaped public opinion and sent shockwaves through international politics: in 2006, ex-FSB agent Alexander Litvinenko lay dying in a hospital bed after being poisoned in the heart of London. Before his death, this Russian defector, who has constantly denounced the abuses of Vladimir Putin’s regime, specifically accused the Kremlin chief of ordering his assassination. This is the story told by the British miniseries Litvinenkofrom January 19th on M6.
It’s a story worthy of a John Le Carré novel: Russian spies, defectors, polonium poisoning, pressure from the authorities, international tensions… and Vladimir Putin, quoted by Litvinenko from the start, the victim of an assassination attempt that hasn’t happened yet is not dead and denounces his own killer. Each episode begins with the declaration that this is in fact a true story that has been carefully documented despite some minor changes. And the methodical processing of the case is undeniably well done, the series meticulously takes up the course of events based on the testimonies, the recordings of the ex-agent on the verge of death on his bed, in the hospital, investigation files…
The four episodes trace the investigations carried out by two British police officers and then by counterintelligence over a ten year period and in chronological order. It all starts when Litvinenko is struck by the first symptoms; Hyatt, Dawson and a team led by Clive Timmons (Mark Bonnar) attempt to trace the poisoning and prove that the assassination was directly attributable to Russian intelligence, ordered by the Kremlin; a British agent (Sam Troughton) travels to Moscow to question the prime suspect; Ten years later, Marina Litvinenko is still fighting tooth and nail for justice while the case is embroiled in legal and diplomatic complications.
This aspect remains the most striking: if we marry Marina’s fight, the series takes on a more intimate dimension. The widow, played by the excellent Margarita Lieveva, is certainly the strongest and most emblematic character of the series. Over the course of a decade, we see her fight for the memory of her late husband and for her son, seeking justice, campaigning for those responsible to be brought to justice, facing pressure and intimidation, facing diplomatic entanglements savage stubbornness, tirelessly denounce the arbitrariness of a totalitarian power capable of murdering those who oppose their leader, even on foreign soil.
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The decision to keep the fictional aspect to the strict minimum and to unfold the facts conscientiously makes the story quite sober. Sometimes one has the impression of watching a documentary, the series ultimately offers no narrative or human enrichment. The episodes focus on lengthy police and court proceedings – which are sometimes interesting, sometimes rather boring. A fortiori, because apart from Lieveva, no actor really comes out of the game, in her defense the characters have little depth…
And if David Tennant’s name was widely used during the promotion, that’s cheating! He appears as Litvinenko in the first episode, mumbles in a heavily broken Russian accent, is made up like a stolen car to look like the real Litvinenko in the hospital photos… and dies. We won’t see him again, the series largely eschews the man who gives him his title to focus on the investigation. This creates two problems: on the one hand, while the heart of the story is the agony and death of a man who was murdered for his political positions, no emotion really shines through; On the other hand, by the end of the four episodes, it’s difficult to discern who he was or what his political and ideological beliefs were.
Finally, it’s surprising that the series only scratches the surface at a time when Putin’s Russia has taken center stage and the Cold War seems to be reigniting. We continue to focus on the Litvinenko affair itself, without ever expanding the subject or exposing a general system of interference and murderous reprisals (from Georgi Markov to Sergei Skripal to Anna Politovskaia).
We see if… we like series that are based on raw facts and border on docu-fiction; we are willing to take the time to follow the investigation step by step, even when it is on site; We’re looking for a conscientious account of the Litvinenko case.
We’re not looking if… we want to know the character of Litvinenko and we expect flashbacks that shed light on his struggle and personality; we want to see David Tennant for miles and miles; we’re a former FSB agent, a bit paranoid…
Murder of Polonium – The Litvinenko Case
4 episodes of approx. 45′.
January 19 on M6.