‘Luther’: Idris Elba is Stellar, Again

Luther returns to BBC America on 3-6 September with all its strengths and weakness intact. Idris Elba excels in his subtle portrayal of a man struggling with his past even as new skeins of loyalty and trust are binding him to the present. He heads an ensemble of talented actors who give evocative, low-key performances, amid lavish production values that help to create a London that feels, as it did in the first two series, lived-in and living.

But Luther‘s dedication to exploring the psychological motives for criminal behavior rather than the more conventional “who done it” formula robs each investigation of the tension of discovery and, as happens in the first two episodes this new season, leaves the audience impatient for the team to put the obvious clues together. When the crimes here are standard TV fare — the copycat killer and the middle class vigilante — the dramatic filler of the series, Luther’s personal life, bears undue weight.

Once again, writer Neil Cross pushes in more and more of these plot strands to distract attention from the paucity of the investigative storyline. Here Luther embarks on a tentative romance with a woman who crashes into his car, shopkeeper Mary Day (Sienna Guillory), and finds himself the target of an undercover Police Complaints investigation into the multiple deaths of those close to him. Both storlines seem somewhat half-hearted. Even when Luther’s sergeant, Justin Ripley (Warren Brown), cooperates with the police investigators, the personal venom of retired DSU George Stark (David O’Hara) suggests too little proof and too much vengeance at work to present Luther with any real danger. And while the fleeting early scenes between Luther and Mary capture both the hesitancy and eagerness of midlife romance, her fear of risk short-circuits any chance of long-term intimacy.

The pleasures of the third season thus reside in the acting and in directing. Sam Miller, who directs the first episodes, faces the now familiar dilemma of soliciting viewer interest at a time when the mutilated living and the mangled dead litter primetime crime dramas by exhibiting baroque insight into horror. He taunts his audience with macabre exchanges between a murderer and his unknowing victims and turns shoddy housing construction into a lethal weapon. Farren Blackburn, who directs the second half of the miniseries, builds the spectacle of a public lynching scene long before any noose is tied, and then orchestrates the clash of public obsession and private revenge into a maelstrom of all-too-believable chaos that neither Luther nor Ripley can transcend. But neither director knows when to dial back on a visual cliché.

Just so, when Dani Lane (Sasha Behar) is ready to dial 999 when she hears strange whinings in her attic, fails to do so when her husband (Selva Rasalingam) goes to investigate, leading directly to the crashes of a off-screen mano-a-mano struggle. When she then hides herself in a closet rather than summoning help, we’re left to labor with suspension of disbelief. A close-up of red, red blood dripping from a crystal chandelier reminds us that wealth is no barrier to Grim Reaper. We get it.

For all such overstatements, however, the evolving relationship between Luther and Ripley continues to be engage us. As the men probe the murder of a reclusive internet tormentor, Luther’s search for justice and Ripley’s respect for the law drive them to very different courses of action. While Ripley is loyal, he is not uncritical, a trait Luther admires and understands. Ripley moves from clue to clue, uncovering each piece of potential evidence, with quiet, lateral thinking, even as Brown’s fine performance reveals that Ripley is arresting his suspect more in sorrow than in anger. His independence now impresses Luther just as much as his loyalty has done before: “You should be me, with little Ripleys of your own.”

Not much chance of that, alas, with the script’s penchant for shark-jumping melodrama. The return of killer-with-a-crush-on-Luther, Alice Morgan (Ruth Wilson) signals the end of sense and sensibility in this series, and the final scenes suggest the production team has no idea of how to end its tale. When so much of the series depends on psychological nuance, the lurch into Hollywood action thriller confrontations is an outright admission of defeat. Sensationalism trumps subtlety once more. Both Luther and Idris Elba deserve so much more.

RATING 5 / 10