BBC Video // 2010 // 368 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Jim Thomas // December 7th, 2010
What if you were on the devil's side without knowing it?
The BBC asked writer Neil Cross to come up with an "iconic detective" show. Cross combined elements from different types of shows and came up with John Luther, a near-genius whose ability to understand a criminal's mind is equal parts reason and intuition. Along the same lines of Columbo, the criminal is identified to the audience almost immediately; the drama comes from Luther's attempts to identify and or catch the culprit. The first season aired to a certain amount of critical and public acclaim, not overwhelming, but sufficient to warrant a second season (which has, I believe, just begun). BBC Video now brings before the court the first season of Luther.
DCI John Luther (Idris Elba, The Wire) is a brilliant, troubled cop in the Serious Crimes Unit. Seven months ago, he solved a high-profile case, catching a serial killer and saving a little girl in the process. The case took a terrible toll on Luther, leaving him emotionally exhausted, estranged him from his wife Zoe (Indira Varma, Rome) and suspended from the force after a suspicious fall left the serial killer in a coma. Now, recovered (?) and reinstated, Luther thinks he is getting his life back in order, but his colleagues fear that he's little more than a walking powder keg.
His first case is the murder of an elderly couple, executed in their home. While interviewing the couple's brilliant daughter Alice (Ruth Wilson, 2006's Jane Eyre), Luther realizes that not only did Alice kill her parents, but that she's a complete psychopath, devoid of any human empathy. For her part, Alice realizes that Luther is on to her, but also that he has no admissible evidence; she finds the whole situation somewhat amusing.
Frustrated at his inability to bring down Alice, Luther flings himself into his job, which, naturally, starts to put him under the same sort of pressure that led to his last breakdown. Oh, and Zoe has decided to leave Luther for a human rights attorney (Paul McGann, Alien3).
From a character perspective, Luther finds himself torn between three women. His boss, DSU Rose Teller (Saskia Reeves, Frank Herbert's Dune), wants Luther to do the job by the book -- and not lose himself in his cases again. Zoe wants Luther to place her first -- and not lose himself in his cases again. Alice, however, accepts Luther just as he is. When the only person who accepts you as you are is a psychotic killer, you really have to ask yourself some tough questions. That underlying tension, Luther's struggle to find his own identity in the wake of his breakdown, is the foundation of the show.
At least, that's where they seem to be going initially. Somewhere along the way, though, that aspect of the plot gets off track. The individual episodes are solid, with captivating cases, with suitably distasteful details. The season arc, on the other hand, is all over the place. The first two episodes get us expecting an ongoing battle of wits and wills between Luther and Alice; we get hints here and there that Alice has some kind of scheme going, but there's no clear payoff. Moreover, Luther's attitude towards Alice changes from her being a serious threat to her being Luther's on-call consulting psychopath. While there are some legitimate ways of explaining that sudden shift, we don't get any, leaving us in the dark and feeling as though we missed something. It's as though two-thirds of the way towards the destination, someone reached over and yanked the steering wheel. Don't get me wrong -- there's some great stuff in the final two episodes. It's just that the transition is sudden. I don't know if the storyline simply didn't get sufficient development (quite possible with only six episodes) or if ideas that were originally intended for the first series got postponed for the second -- the series ends on a striking tableau that's a hell of a cliffhanger. What I do know is that coherence ultimately eludes the storyline -- and it drives me crazy because there's so much to like about the show.
The series becomes, in the end, a series of promising moments that are never fully realized. To wit: In the third episode, DCI Martin Schenk (Dermot Crowley, Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi), a Police Complaints (Internal Affairs, basically) detective, calmly informs Luther that he is too dangerous to be on the force, and that Schenk intends to see Luther removed -- even if Schenk has to break the rules to do so. It's an interesting idea -- someone breaking the rules to get a cop who succeeds by breaking the rules -- with the potential for great drama. However, it never goes anywhere. (In all fairness, it's possible that the payoff is set to occur in the second season, but the court can only rule on the presented evidence.)
I don't get HBO, so this was my first exposure to the barely contained inferno that is Idris Elba. Whatever my problems are with the show, he ain't it. Sweet Jesus, the man is electric, elevating the material far beyond its merit. Ruth Wilson brings a whack-job sensuality to the role of Alice; the sexual tension between the two is palpable, but at the same time, she almost literally oozes menace when interacting with anyone not named John Luther. Indira Varma does a decent job as Zoe; that's not so much a slap at her as it is the simple fact that of the main characters, hers is the most clichéd. Truth to tell, Luther himself is more than a little clichéd, but Elba has enough screen time that he can move the character past those clichés -- Zoe can't quite escape, though.
Trivia: For Law and Order fans, one episode has a nice little shout out when Luther has a co-worker call New York and get some information from Detective Munch in the Special Victims Unit.
Yet more trivia: The show's theme song, "Paradise Circus" is by the British band Massive Attack, which also supplies the theme music for House, M.D.
Video is solid, if not spectacular. The show has a relatively grimy feel to it, and a complex yet muted color palette. Mutedly vibrant? I dunno. The stereo audio track is OK. At times soft dialog is weakly mixed, so that the sibilants run together. On the other hand, the score comes through well, which is good, as it works well to establish mood and tension. The songs that play over the end credits are well chosen -- not hits, per se, but recognizable songs; in a nice touch, they're covers rather than the originals, so that the power of the lyrics isn't weakened through familiarity. There's a 30-minute featurette that offers some interesting background. There's some good stuff there, but on the whole it's overproduced, with self-conscious camera angles and editing that tends to distract.
As noted earlier, the series has so much that's right. Acting is great -- Elba has a freakish screen presence, along with smoldering chemistry with both Varma and Wilson. In addition, directing, editing, and music combine to ratchet up the tension -- simply from a technical viewpoint, the climax of episode five is masterful, even if you give yourself mental whiplash trying to sort the plot out.
You know, it just hit me -- the problem with the series is that it's afraid to fully commit to the concept. We never get the sense that Luther is about to become too emotionally invested in his cases -- his emotional outbursts stem from problems with Zoe. While the individual episodes are strong, the series becomes, sadly, less than the sum of its parts.
Guilty by reason of insanity.
Review content copyright © 2010 Jim Thomas; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: BBC Video
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 368 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Wikipedia: Luther
* Official Site