'Luther': Idris Elba is Stellar, Again

Lesley Smith

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.


Airtime: Monday-Thursday, 10pm ET
Cast: Idris Elba, Warren Brown, David O’Hara, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Ruth Wilson, Dermot
Subtitle: Season Three Premiere
Network: BBC America
Director: Sam Miller, Farren Blackburn
Air date: 2013-09-03

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.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

Net Neutrality and the Music Ecosystem: Defending the Last Mile

Still from Whiplash (2014) (Photo by Daniel McFadden - © Courtesy of Sundance Institute) (IMDB)

"...when the history books get written about this era, they'll show that the music community recognized the potential impacts and were strong leaders." An interview with Kevin Erickson of Future of Music Coalition.

Last week, the musician Phil Elverum, a.k.a. Mount Eerie, celebrated the fact that his album A Crow Looked at Me had been ranked #3 on the New York Times' Best of 2017 list. You might expect that high praise from the prestigious newspaper would result in a significant spike in album sales. In a tweet, Elverum divulged that since making the list, he'd sold…six. Six copies.

Keep reading... Show less

Under the lens of cultural and historical context, as well as understanding the reflective nature of popular culture, it's hard not to read this film as a cautionary tale about the limitations of isolationism.

I recently spoke to a class full of students about Plato's "Allegory of the Cave". Actually, I mentioned Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" by prefacing that I understood the likelihood that no one had read it. Fortunately, two students had, which brought mild temporary relief. In an effort to close the gap of understanding (perhaps more a canyon or uncanny valley) I made the popular quick comparison between Plato's often cited work and the Wachowski siblings' cinema spectacle, The Matrix. What I didn't anticipate in that moment was complete and utter dissociation observable in collective wide-eyed stares. Example by comparison lost. Not a single student in a class of undergraduates had partaken of The Matrix in all its Dystopic future shock and CGI kung fu technobabble philosophy. My muted response in that moment: Whoa!

Keep reading... Show less

'The Art of Confession' Ties Together Threads of Performance

Allen Ginsberg and Robert Lowell at St. Mark's Church in New York City, 23 February 1977

Scholar Christopher Grobe crafts a series of individually satisfying case studies, then shows the strong threads between confessional poetry, performance art, and reality television, with stops along the way.

Tracing a thread from Robert Lowell to reality TV seems like an ominous task, and it is one that Christopher Grobe tackles by laying out several intertwining threads. The history of an idea, like confession, is only linear when we want to create a sensible structure, the "one damn thing after the next" that is the standing critique of creating historical accounts. The organization Grobe employs helps sensemaking.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.