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Navalny review – documentary about Putin’s nemesis plays like a spy thriller

Daniel Roher's profile of Alexei Navalny is a propulsive and gripping piece of reportage, with a truly extraordinary second act

Though technically a documentary, Daniel Roher’s Navalny – a thrilling profile of Putin’s number-one domestic nemesis – has more in common with an entry in the Bourne franchise. Following Russian politician Alexei Navalny in December 2020 and January 2021 as he investigates his near-fatal summer 2020 Novichok poisoning at the hands of a Kremlin kill squad, this is a genuinely gripping piece of reporting, bringing Putin’s evil to a very intimate level.

Roher gives us a brief background story to start off, showing how Navalny – with his presidential ambitions and investigations into Kremlin corruption – became so personally despised by Putin (who refuses to even speak his name out loud), but the bulk of Navalny is devoted to his hunt for his would-be killers. It swiftly becomes a real stranger-than-fiction story after investigators from journalist collective Bellingcat manage to acquire the phone numbers of the assassins, whom Navalny then calls up, masquerading as a bureaucrat.

He asks for a report on the assassination attempt – which was, of course, denied by Putin – and, in a truly extraordinary sequence, one of the dumber members of the team gives Navalny everything, from the methods of murder (poisoned underwear) to his personal evaluation of Navalny as a man. It makes for breathtaking, heart-in-mouth footage, a spy B-movie come true in the most spectacular manner.

Inevitably, Roher is building to Navalny’s eventual arrest after he returns to Russia from Germany (where he was recuperating), and we see the toll this fateful moment takes on his family, who are brave-faced but clearly shattered by the events. It makes for a moving ending, though not as show-stopping as the centrepiece investigations, whilst Navalny’s individual courage leaves a deep impression.

Navalny over-extends its reach a couple of times, grappling with major events that it doesn't give itself time to adequately explore, most notably Navalny’s past associations with Russia’s anti-immigrant far-right, which is waved away with disarming speed. It’s the one time Roher’s approach leaves a bad taste in the mouth, an unfortunate misstep in what is otherwise one of the most singularly exciting and propulsive documentaries you’ll see this year.

Navalny is released in UK cinemas and on streaming platforms from 12 April.

Where to watch

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