I’ve been watching Luther for the last couple of weeks, and I have to say that I whole-heartedly recommend it. I think I can boil this show down its component parts pretty easily – it’s got Idris Elba in a starring role, and it’s essentially the British version of Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies, in both character and color scheme. Before we go any further, I should probably point out that Idris Elba doesn’t actually wear the costume to do his crime-fighting, but his character is still one of those obsessive TV detectives with a broken family life, an overdeveloped conscience, and a convenient set of lunatics on the opposing team to encourage the audience to wonder Just Who Is The Crazy One, but never force them into any truly uncomfortable territory. Luther never does anything truly objectionable, if he breaks the law, it’s For the Right Reasons, if he kills someone They Deserved It. It’s the shape and pattern of an anti-hero but never the real thing. Batman. Phillip Marlowe. Bruce Willis in Die Hard or Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon or any number of aging character actors who somehow get their own TV shows years after they stopped caring but still need the work. Or, if you prefer, we could re-appropriate Dookie’s summary of Dexter from the fifth season of The Wire: he’s a serial killer, but he only be killing other serial killers. (A seriously underrated moment from The Wire, by the way. You can just see Dexter wilting away. The Emmys are a joke.)
I’ve been over this before, but the whole obsessive cop story is a premise that has made good movies and bad movies, good TV shows and bad shows, and there will be shows about demented police officers long after we’re all in the ground. It’s probably a story as old as time. “Dostoevsky” and “brooding protagonist” go hand in hand. Hamlet. The rest of Law & Order: Shakespearean Tragedies Unit. I wouldn’t be surprised if cave paintings featured brooding Cro-Magnons looking for mastodon poachers. Or if original drafts of Don Quixote had the sad-countenanced knight and Sancho Panza hunting a cannibal through La Mancha. The good news about this ubiquity is that it provides the perfect environment to test an actor’s skills. And I have to say that Idris Elba does pretty fucking well. To be fair, it’s not like he’s working from a deficit – “Idris Elba” is practically a synonym for “sexually attractive” in today’s culture – but it’s easy to forget that the guy can really act. He was great as Stringer Bell, but he was surrounded by other great actors, and he was part of the greatest television show ever at the time. It was hard to get an accurate idea. In Luther, unencumbered by strange accents or complex character development, Idris Elba punches doors, pleads with his wife, interrogates suspects, gets shot at, and it’s all great. The man fucking owns it. It’s a lot of fun. Elba’s got those big brooding eyes and a hulking, limping gait that make him perfect for this sort of tragic superhero story. (People of the world who find Idris Elba attractive: no one will ever argue with you.) And to think, American media had this guy guest-starring in The Office? A second banana in the Thor movie? How is this guy not a movie star?
But a good police story is always a function of its leads, and Luther’s supporting psychopaths can be a little uneven. Ruth Wilson – an actress best known for a Jane Eyre adaptation that I certainly haven’t seen, thank you very much – sets the bar almost impossibly high. She knows her role and plays it perfectly – she’s in pure Hannibal Lector mode the whole time, almost impossibly entertaining, simultaneously funny and terrifying. I’m sure that Hollywood will manage to hide her in bland supporting roles for the next decade.