While Hollywood still struggles to give him a proper post-The Wire showcase (his most recent endeavor, The Losers, being an enjoyable romp but hardly the most strenuous of acting exercises), Idris Elba has returned to his native UK to tackle some more ambitious and challenging projects--a bit ironic, considering he first ventured to the States for the greater opportunities available to actors of color. By nearly all accounts from its recent Glasgow and Tribeca festival showings, the British indie in which he stars and also executive produced, Thomas Ikimi's Legacy, has given Elba a vehicle far more demanding--and rewarding--than any of his big screen projects to date.
In the meantime, while that film continues to travel the festival circuit en route to a general theatrical release down the line, another showcase for Elba the capital-A Actor (as opposed to simply "the Star" of recent years) is more widely available on the small screen--albeit currently only in Great Britain, on BBC One: Luther. On the surface, the series seems not unlike any modern crime procedural: police detective (the man of the title, Elba's DCI John Luther) whose brilliant investigative skill is in direct proportion to his personal drama and demons. Writer Neil Cross and director Brian Kirk briskly set up the character and scenario, literally cutting to the chase in a pre-title sequence whose consequences promise to reverberate long and hard for Luther for the duration of the six-episode series. In the more immediate time frame, though, these events send Luther into suspension, from which he emerges (conveniently, right after the title sequence) a bit worn and broken down but still sharp as a tack, as he displays in a heated interrogation room showdown with one Alice Morgan (Ruth Wilson, striking the perfectly fascinating, disturbing "off" note), whose family was slaughtered in a brutal murder.
This doesn't sound terribly unique, and from this juncture all signals point toward settling into a familar procedural (for want of a better term) procedure: tormented hero catches the bad guy and thus re-proves his worth and re-discovers his mojo--though only incrementally, for after all this is a series, and the first episode at that. But as they say, the devil (in all senses) is in the details, and this is where Luther carves out its unique identity and offers significant promise. While it remains to be seen if this is a premiere episode exception, what by initial appearance looks to be another Case of the Week plants intriguing seeds for a larger story arc and further enriches the established threads. The more cliche elements, such as Luther's turbulent relationship with his estranged wife (Indira Varma), register positively despite their overwhelming familiarity due to Cross's sharp, unfussed writing and--most crucially--the committed performances.
And there is no performance here more committed than that of the lead, who brings tremendous focus to a character that is, ironically enough, in an ongoing struggle to maintain his. The BBC's official synopsis has termed Luther a "psychological thriller," and while that does apply, more apt would simply be "psycho-thriller" as just as much as this is about the psychology of John Luther, it is also about his psychoses. Elba's finely shaded, painfully authentic performance drives this point home--and not necessarily in the broader scenes such as the opening or a rather rote angry outburst later in the episode, but in his haunted, haunting face, which Kirk is wise enough to often let speak in silent, eloquent closeup. However, Luther, despite his rumpled appearance, is no sad sack, and one feels the charge right along with him when testing his wits on the criminal hunt--but, of course, it's that very excitement when not held in check that got him into trouble in the first place, and, by episode's end, the presence of a especially formidable adversary could lead him into an even bigger mess before long.
This is just the first episode of a scheduled six, so it remains to be seen how the character of Luther develops and his journey unfolds, not to mention if Cross devolves into standard cop show conventions. The teaser for the next episode does raise some warning flags, for while the larger arc looks to be advanced further, there appears to be a Big Bad of the Week in the form of a shaven-headed Sean Pertwee. Who knows how that all turns out, one thing is certain at this point--I will be watching to see exactly how it does.