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In ‘Litvinenko,’ a Former Russian Spy Investigates His Own Murder


LONDON — In the course of AMC+’s recent dramatization of the poisoning of the intelligence agent Alexander V. Litvinenko, a police officer asks a pathologist concerning the state of the person’s organs when he died. The doctor thinks for a moment, as if considering how graphic to be, after which replies, “Sludge.”

It’s a visceral moment in “Litvinenko,” a limited series written by the “Lupin” creator George Kay that depicts Litvinenko’s 2006 poisoning in London via a cup of tea laced with the radioactive element polonium 210, and its aftermath.

While many viewers will remember the photo of Litvinenko on his deathbed, gaunt and newly bald, that appeared on front pages world wide, fewer will know the main points of his final days, and the way — convinced he was poisoned by President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia — he aided the investigation into the attack, whilst his internal organs were failing.

The story of a former K.G.B. agent assassinated in broad daylight within the dining room of a British hotel could have made for a sensationalized show about international intrigue. But “Litvinenko,” which involves AMC+ and Sundance Now on Friday, as an alternative focuses on the human cost behind the headlines.

A lot of the running time of the series’s 4 episodes is spent with the police investigating the murder and the Litvinenkos themselves — Alexander (played by David Tennant), but additionally his widow Marina (Margarita Levieva), who for years agitated for the British government to carry an inquiry into her husband’s death.

Kay’s research for this system involved close collaboration with Marina, in addition to the investigating officers, including Brent Hyatt, the London police officer who took 18 hours of statements from Litvinenko within the hospital.

That was a method the murder investigation began before anyone had “actually died,” as considered one of the show’s law enforcement officials notes. Litvinenko used the hours it took for the poison to wreck his body “to inform the police what he knew, so he was not only a witness to his own murder, he was a detective in it,” Kay said in a video interview.

The primary episode covers this time immediately following the poisoning, when every minute was precious. The second shows the weeks following Litvinenko’s death, when the police scrambled to place the pieces together and contain the specter of radiation poisoning to the British public.

The next episodes cover the months, and eventually years, that Marina spent fighting for an inquest, after which a public inquiry, into her husband’s death.

“We wanted to offer a way of the perseverance of Marina Litvinenko,” Kay said. “She’s the one one that didn’t retire or hand over or look the opposite way, or try to get in the way in which of the justice. She kept going, and it took her a decade ultimately.”

In some ways, Marina is the show’s lead character. The widow said she saw cooperating with the show’s creators as her duty.

“I need people to know not only what happened to me, to my family, but why it’s happened now to many families,” she said. Putin’s actions since 2006, including the war in Ukraine, have cost “tens of millions” of individuals their family members, she added.

A 2019 play about Litvinenko’s murder, “A Very Expensive Poison,” was written by Lucy Prebble with input from Marina, and there was also a 2021 opera. But this television show arrives after Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, and so in a modified political landscape.

Tennant said that the brutal war had been “the moment that the world woke as much as Putin, and what he was.” He added: “I believe either people didn’t really understand that until now, or they understood it, nevertheless it was inconvenient to acknowledge.”

In 2006, Britain saw Russia as a supposedly friendly power. On the time the British government condemned Russia’s refusal to extradite Andrei Lugovoi to face trial for the murder in Britain, but in 2013, Home Secretary Theresa May admitted that successive British governments had blocked a public inquiry into the poisoning out of concern for “diplomacy.”

May eventually agreed to Marina’s long-fought-for public inquiry, which in 2016 found that the poisoning was “probably approved” by Putin.

While “Litvinenko” is a show with big political concerns, the persistence of strange people is what ultimately motivates it. Tennant said the time he spent with Marina preparing for the role drove that home for him.

“The experience of being together with her changes it from a story about politics to a story a couple of family,” he said.

Kay also wanted to emphasise Litvinenko’s home life within the show. He “worked in Russian intelligence, but additionally he loved football and swimming, he was a dad, he got the tube home,” Kay said. “He lives a traditional life in all but some features of his previous work. And it’s the identical with Brent Hyatt.”

Hyatt’s home life in the course of the investigation, particularly his struggle to conceive a toddler together with his wife, is dropped at the forefront in “Litvinenko.” The show depicts each Hyatt (Neil Maskell) and Litvinenko trying to offer for his or her families in extraordinary circumstances. In the primary episode, before Litvinenko is poisoned, we see his family having dinner and discussing his son’s school homework.

“It’s very necessary to take a look at the human side of any event,” Marina said. The episodes highlight the work of all of the strange individuals who helped her in her pursuit for justice, which was not only motivated by the political import of her husband’s work, but additionally by her devotion to him as a wife.

“I believe for some people, it should be a love story,” she said. “When, if you’ve an actual love, you never hand over.”

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