Saturday, October 16, 2010

Television Review: 'Luther'

The Killer Is Hot, The Hero Hotheaded

The New York Times
Published: October 15, 2010

At first perusal, a drama about a tormented-but-brilliant cop whose ethics code doesn’t require cleaning up as much as fumigation would seem like an old, familiar destination. You have made the journey here before, particularly if you got on board “The Shield” for its seven seasons. And yet, when the cop is played by Idris Elba (Stringer Bell of “The Wire”) and his mind-meld is happening with a murderer who looks like a gangster’s moll, quotes Bertrand Russell and sounds like Judi Dench, the stamp on your passport starts to look decidedly novel.

“Luther”: Idris Elba, center, is a tormented but brilliant detective in this new series on Sundays on BBC America.

The angst and psychological machinations arrive in the form of “Luther,” a six-part series beginning on BBC America on Sunday. The Luther of the title is John Luther, a London detective who lets a maniac fall to his near death in the show’s tense opening moments. The perpetrator in question obliterates children. We meet him hanging from a high beam, getting no assist from a cop who instead recounts the names of the young victims, thus setting the tone for a series grippingly compelled by the most gothic threats to domestic tranquillity.

The London of Luther’s purview is a city in which the number of deranged evildoers per capita would seem to outrank the number of wool sports coats in Oxford and Cambridge. There are rapists who menace young mothers in their living rooms, sons who kill for their fathers’ approval, daughters who gun down their parents and stage the crimes as home invasion. The series provides one of the most chilling television images in a long time as the camera closes in on a baby peacefully playing on a Gymini while his mother unwittingly opens the front door to a psychopath.

The portrait here is of a world where families are under siege, both at the hand of their own internal furies and the rage of predators. It is meant to exploit our deepest phobias of the most catastrophic kinds of personal intrusion, fears that often lie dormant until the news delivers something as horrific as the Petit family killings, which occurred in the otherwise serene corners of Connecticut three years ago.

Only the Miami given to us by “Dexter” provides such an active roster of blood-hungry lunatics. Here, though, the killers might actually come with an Oxbridge pedigree, a fact that doesn’t reflexively displease Luther. Some of us reserve our eye rolling for long lines at the grocery checkout; Luther looks peeved when he realizes that the ones he is hunting haven’t figured out that he has set them up.

“Luther” is the creation of Neil Cross, a suspense novelist, Man Booker prize nominee and a writer on “MI-5.” He has cited both Sherlock Holmes and Columbo as sources of inspiration for Luther. But clearly Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter books figure among his influences as well. The series borrows a certain view of the relationship between unlikely partners on opposite sides of a gaping moral divide. Luther is both repelled by, and sexually drawn to, a beautiful young killer, Alice Morgan (Ruth Wilson), whose braininess extends to an expertise in physics and an acute ability to help Luther unravel the most advanced criminal minds.

The two circle each other dangerously, their chemistry both bizarre and addicting. Portrayed with a freakish sensuality by Ms. Wilson, Alice guides Luther to the right moves on his chess board and offers a lurid and insistent form of marriage counseling; Luther wants the wife from whom he is estranged, a human-rights lawyer, back in his bed.

Alice appears to want to facilitate the reconnection. She has the ferocity to gun down a house pet, but she believes that love is the brutal heart’s only means of salvation. She argues well enough almost to make her case.


BBC America, Sunday nights at 10, Eastern and Pacific times; 9, Central time.

Created and written by Neil Cross; directed by Sam Miller, Brian Kirk and Stefan Schwartz; Phillippa Giles, executive producer; Katie Swinden, producer; Idris Elba, associate producer. Produced by the BBC and BBC America.

WITH: Idris Elba (John Luther), Ruth Wilson (Alice Morgan), Steven Mackintosh (Ian Reed), Indira Varma (Zoe Luther), Paul McGann (Mark North), Saskia Reeves (Rose Teller) and Warren Brown (Justin Ripley).

A version of this review appeared in print on October 16, 2010, on page C1 of the New York edition.

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