Thursday, 6 May 2010


Short palindromic review: 'Able I was ere I saw Elba'.

Longer review: The much-ballyhooed BBC cop series Luther debuted Tuesday. It was supposed to 'reinvent' (reform?) the British crime series, and I'd looked forward to it, because the idea of bringing Idris Elba back from the States (where his Stringer Bell was one of the Wire's more interesting characters) with his own vehicle was a good one. It's not unusual for British talent to be poached by American TV, but in the case of non-white British performers, the sad truth is that there has been a lack of quality roles for them in Britain. Those they get in America are not necessarily better, but they are higher profile (for example Alex Kingston and then Parminder Nagra on ER), and in the case of Archie Panjabi, who's the most interesting character in The Good Wife, the danger is being typecast in the crime genre.

Which was a danger for Elba too. His ability to play sensitive was the key to Bell's character, and on paper it must have appeared that the character of John Luther, just back on the force after a seven-month investigation for his role in the near-fatal injury to a child-killer, had a lot of the same ambiguity. The script was by novelist and Spooks' writer Neil Cross, and the supporting cast, especially the women, was strong, to set off against Elba's leading-man quality. In fact, the desire to scatter Elba among the ladies means Steven Mackintosh, as his erstwhile partner, is reduced to playing the sidekick as lonely wife at home!

Thus it was a surprise to find a programme that was not only a derivative compendium of cliche, and repetitive within that compendium, but so predictable that the slumming philosopher Lucy Huskinson remarked anything so obviously predestined ought to have been titled 'Calvin', not 'Luther'. I wondered if the title (and he is called John Luther, perhaps combining Luther and Calvin in one repressed detective?) was meant to evoke the fiery priest, or perhaps Martin Luther King, but if it was, such allusion was so subtle as to pass me by completely. Meanwhile, Luther's 'sensitivity' is challenged by repeated moments more suited to the Mitchell brothers in East Enders. I kept expecting him to scream 'you're drivin me men-tull' at his soon-to-be-ex wife. By the way, I also kept expecting someone to call Elba 'Loo-tha' but forget we aren't in Balmer anymore, Alice (see below)

Luther is like Law and Order: Criminal Intent designed for the look and internal conflict of Prime Suspect or The Vice or Spooks with dashes of Dexter thrown in. Somehow, it transforms Elba into a more raging David Harewood doing an imitation of Vincent D'Onofrio. Over and over again. How many times can a furniture-breaking guy unable to contain his temper flash his badge and yell 'I'm a police officer' as he's dragged away? He's obviously got a problem with the women, as we know from the very first moment we see his wife from whom he's been separated for those seven months. As played by Indira Varma, who looks as if Juliette Lewis has wandered in from the sub-continent, she's cold to his hot, and after about ten seconds you wish Stringer Bell was around to toss him the skinny on this one. But Luther has been denying his desire for all those months, trying to cope with his guilt over letting a serial killer plunge to his death after getting the info that saved his latest victim's life; that, my friends, may be the definition of Calvinist repression, as well as pre-destination.

Luckily, he's able to fall back on his boss, Saskia Reeves. It's odd how this programme, like Law & Order UK with Harriet Walter, under-utilises its best actress, but Reeves is obviously being set up to be Elba's rabbi, if not more. Interestingly, they've already teased that the child-killer might wake up from his coma and if he says Elba pushed him, Elba would be in trouble. Why anyone, let alone a senior police officer, would automatically believe a child-killer over the cop who caught him is a question which we thought was answered by Dirty Harry, but saying this plot line has been hinted at is like saying Hitler hinted at territorial ambition. The killer's comatose body has also already been checked out by the lead villainess of the series, Alice Morgan, a child prodigy in physics who's murdered her parents and dog and hidden the murder weapon inside the dog, disposing of the evidence when said pet is cremated.

Luther, using all the tricks of D'Onofrio's trade, including standing at odd angles to upstage his fellow actors, has intuited all this, which of course makes him the perfect foil for Alice. Alice is played by Ruth Wilson, whose beguiling Jane Eyre has turned her into a one-trick pony act of fish-hook eyebrows and hooked-fish lips, a pouting intellectual sexuality that is so hard for Luther to resist we get three separate but equal moments where they freeze as if Luther is about to either kiss or hook those lips. Even Alice gets bored with it, saying, in the best line of the show, 'kiss me or kill me John'. There is also some highly double-entendre dialogue about 'dark matter' and 'black holes', which may be part of the reason thespians of colour aren't flocking for more roles in British TV. Wilson is having such fun with the role that it is almost compelling to watch and see how far over the top she can take it, or whether the seething pent-up rage and frustration of the strong but sensitive John Luther will explode into a black hole of dark matter and need to be rescued by his estranged wife or his talented boss. Watch this space...

1 comment :

dlwilson26 said...

I the first episode. The series fits into the category of well photographed, edited to be exciting TV.

Luther is a lone-wolf cop who just returns from a probation due to a
psychological trauma involving the death of a prominent criminal. Also his wife is breaking up with
him. His boss is supportive. She wants him back on the job. Her boss is suspicious of him. So they drop a murder case on him and we are off.
A couple and their dog get it and their beautiful genius smart
daughter is the suspect. There is either no evidence or the evidence
has been destroyed or concealed.

Luther starts to fence with the suspect as if they are in a quantum
physics lab engaging in the scientific method. You can tell that this relationship will generate a lot of tension-sexual and dramatic.

It is too soon to tell how this will develop. But I have never known of any cops who are hip to and turned on by advanced mathematics and

There is a wonderful montage scene in which the flashing by of newspaper stories gives us the back story on Luther.