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Tuesday, June 28, 2011

F3TV: Luther - series 2, episode 3

Film Flam Flummox

The scariest moment thus far in the entire run of Luther comes early in this third hour of series two: the conspicuous absence of Ruth Wilson's name in the opening credit sequence. While the titular DCI John Luther is a ceaselessly compelling character in his own right, what has consistently taken the program a crazy, creepy step beyond is Wilson's character of murderous sociopath Alice Morgan, the unlikely yet undeniable spiritual kin to Idris Elba's tormented detective. To remove the proverbial yang to Luther's yin is a perilously potentially shark-jumping moment at worst by writer/series creator Neil Cross, and appears a remarkably risky dice roll at best.

How fitting, then, that the latest Case of the (Two) Week(s) centers on literal rolls of the dice--on which a (what else?) a psychotic serial killer depends on making his moves on how and when to strike. The pre-title sequence, in which he wreaks nighttime havoc at a service station, serves not only as an appropriately chilling intro to his modus operandi but also the rather brilliantly unnerving approach Cross and director Sam Miller appear to have adopted for this Alice-free installment. With the admittedly most theatrical, just-shy-of-over-the-top element out of the mix, events, however expectedly gruesome they become, play out with an unexpected matter-of-factness and something approaching understatement--thus making them all the more disturbing for it. That opening scene proves to be just a warm-up for an office-set startler that occurs mid-episode, which is shocking not only because of the intense violence but the lack of score or anything else to juice up the moment; the straightforward calm stealthily leads to a rawer, greater wallop than any louder, more obvious mechanics could.

And so follows the rest of the episode, whose lower outward register belies the chaos on constant verge of eruption, resulting in a lingering under-the-skin tension that keeps one consistently on edge during the quiet. In Alice's absence, the new focal kinship of Luther's is that with young ex-prostitute Jenny Jones (Aimee Ffion-Edwards), and their more playful, quasi-parent-child dynamic as shown in an early breakfast scene makes for an injection of lighter energy that feels a bit alien to this dark, heavy world Cross has created--and, inevitably, reality almost immediately sets in with the entrance of Toby (David Dawson). Introduced in brief but indelibly brutal fashion in the previous episode, the suit-clad grandson of/henchman to Jenny's ruthless former employer Baba doesn't brandish any sharp objects for most of his expanded screen time this episode, but his cooler demeanor makes him all the more menacing--and without hammering any literal nails, he corners Luther into some dirty work. This turn, in another textbook example of how thoughtfully, intricately Cross layers and interweaves his ongoing plot threads and character concerns, rouses DS Erin Gray's (Nikki Amuka-Bird) initial concerns about Luther's character into full-blown suspicion, at which Luther's ever-loyal partner DS Justin Ripley (Warren Brown) characteristically, reliably scoffs. (Speaking of stealthily evolving developments, Ripley's evolution from junior partner to smart, tough, capable cop in his own right has been one of series 2's most unexpected delights.)

After weeks of seeing him riddled with angst, screaming in anger and agony, haunted by demons, or driven to the brink of insanity by them, an interrogation room scene finds Luther at the top of his game: formidably intimidating without ever raising his voice, confidently collected and in control... or so he thinks. As I remarked on the close of episode 2, "however much Luther means well for others, it almost assuredly won't mean the same for himself," and indeed the slow-simmering tension finally explodes by this hour's end with a double whammy of both an inspired turn in the Case of (Two) Week(s) and a new existence-threatening predicament for our ever-aggrieved protagonist--but these events in and of themselves may be nothing in comparison to the even larger minefield that is most certain to be set off by them in the grand finale.

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Tuesday, June 21, 2011

F3TV: Luther - series 2, episode 2

Film Flam Flummox

While it comes as no surprise that Luther has garnered notoriety and attention for its title character's weekly investigations of lurid, often grisly, crimes, that is merely the sensationalistic surface that leads to and enriches the true substance underneath--that of writer/series creator Neil Cross's more overarching thematic concerns and, most of all, the psychology of his characters. And so it goes with the second part of the second series' first of two installments; with last week's episode serving more of a "re-set the stage" hour, a simple but incredibly telling lingering shot of DCI John Luther's (Idris Elba) face right before the opening titles pretty much announce that it's back to plunging into more perilous internal waters. While the pursuit of masked murderer Cameron Pell (Lee Ingleby) is as urgent as ever it is so beyond merely keeping the mean streets of London that much safer; as one would expect, the key to capturing Cameron lies in Luther's expert investigative acumen, but even with Luther's partner DS Justin Ripley (Warren Brown) in immediate danger, it also, rather ironically, means him casting aside any sense of human attachment.

For someone so often driven by intense passion and emotion as Luther, this is something a lot easier said than done, but it's a major credit to Elba, Cross, and director Sam Miller how this develops so subtly yet rather surely as the hour progresses, not to mention how Cross interweaves this idea of masks and identity into every plot concern as well as bring the more important ideas clearly to the fore. The serial killer plot does offer up its share of suspense and screams as it works to its Case of the (Two) Week(s) resolution, and the quiet dread with which Miller builds to its climax (aided in no small part to Paul Englishby's haunting score) is far more potent than the rather hackneyed walk through shadowy corridors that capped off last week. But this procedural thread fluidly recedes into the background somewhat and a subplot from the previous week, that of young prostitute Jenny Jones (Aimee Ffion-Edwards), gains prominence. Luther's rescue of Jenny leads to a dramatic encounter with her ruthless boss Baba (Pam Ferris), an even scarier figure than Cameron, but it also comes to inform the greater idea introduced last week by psycho-in-residence Alice Morgan (Ruth Wilson): that of breaking away and starting fresh--but also, more importantly, being free to pursue what you want as who you are. When asked by Ripley why he wears a mask, Cameron simply replies, "Wearing a mask makes it easy"--a statement whose veracity is reinforced later, when team leader DCU Martin Schenk grills a perp (in a truly spectacular scene for Schenk's portrayer, Dermot Crowley) and too truthfully declares "It's amazing how our faces betray us."

And, going back to that pre-title shot of Luther, it is clear that while the veneer shows him as ideally on-the-ball as as he's ever been as a cop, it's just that--a mask that, indeed, makes it "easier." While his colleagues commend him--an amusingly far cry from series 1, where for however well he did, there was always that air of unease and distrust--leave it to his twisted kin Alice to effortlessly recognize what is truly going on within Luther. Wilson's screen time this week is once again limited, but once again does she ever make it count; in an hour with Cameron and his mask, Baba and her hammer (figuratively and literally), and one hell of an intimidating monologue by Schenk, it says it all that Luther's encounter with Alice is, as usual, the most tense and unsettling scene of them all, what with the ongoing threat not of physical violence, but of the psychological and emotional sort. That, indeed, does manifest in Alice's ever-creepy yet ever-alluring way with words, but most disturbingly in Luther's cold, uncharacteristically detached (non-)reaction, appearing to have succeeded in completely sacrificing and assimilating his identity into the monolithic mask of duty. But Alice knows best, for not long after they part, Luther commits a generous gesture of kindness--and, while the hour ends with various relationships and circumstances again juggled and redrawn, as Cross has shown us all episodes prior, however much Luther means well for others, it almost assuredly won't mean the same for himself.

Buy the Luther series 1 DVD here.
Sign up for notifications on Neil Cross's Luther: The Calling prequel novel here.


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Tuesday, June 14, 2011

F3TV: Luther - series 2, episode 1

Film Flam Flummox

If last year's first series of Luther has taught us anything, it's that however straightforward and simple anything (or, perhaps more importantly, anyone) appears in writer/series creator Neil Cross's dark detective saga, it rarely ever is. Even bearing that in mind, the remarkable swiftness and relative tidiness and ease with which Cross and director Sam Miller have hit the reset button in the opening moments of series 2--especially coming after the harrowing, despairing, boldly unresolved wallop of a note the show left off on--is rather startling. Murderous psycho Alice Morgan (Ruth Wilson) has taken full responsibility for the climactic events of last series and is finally behind bars, freeing DCI John Luther (Idris Elba) to resume his lawman duties. He quickly rescues loyal partner DS Justin Ripley (Warren Brown) from between-series demotion, and soon the pair are back on the mean streets of London as part of a new investigative unit headed by DCU Martin Schenk (Dermot Crowley), once one of Luther's biggest detractors; an even more surprising peace appears to have been reached between Luther and Mark North (Paul McGann), one-time fiance of Luther's beloved ex Zoe. (And on a more surface note, the first glimpses of Luther himself show him in a state of undress, taking his time putting on that familar rumpled detective suit--perhaps the BBC's shamelessly pandering way to generate some of that Elba-fueled Takers buzz for this series?)

But what immediately follows once Luther is fully dressed--after taking a seat in his disheveled apartment, he puts a pistol to his head in a spin of Russian roulette--just as quickly rattles the viewer back to the gritty reality; even stripped bare and given the chance to start anew, the pain remains, and his old patterns quickly re-emerge. The players' positions have been rearranged and certain circumstances may have changed, Cross appears to be saying, but certain fundamental realities remain inescapable, and it is impossible to truly proceed as if business were as usual. As Luther and Ripley plunge themselves back into work and the investigation of a typically lurid series of crimes committed by a masked psycho, the familiar Case of the Week (or, rather, "Case of the Two Weeks," for this abbreviated four-hour second series consists of a pair of two-part installments) beats are dutifully hit, the scars of past events still reverberate. Mark and Luther are on decent terms, but vestiges of old tensions linger beneath the decorum. While the perhaps most honorable and by-the-book character of the whole show, the cost Ripley had to pay for his Luther loyalty instills fear and trepidation by one of the pair's new teammates. And while he went out of his way to earn him another chance, Schenk reminds Luther that he is still on as short a leash as ever--and that entails strict orders to avoid all contact with Alice.

But, of course, even locked up, her scary/sexy siren call proves to be too strong for Luther to resist, and as Elba and Wilson's scenes together were in the first series, their tĂȘte-a-tĂȘte here is the definite highlight of this episode, bristling with tension, crackling with chemistry. Incarceration has done nothing to "cure" Alice of her warped view of the world, nor dull her astute powers of perception. Cross wisely leaves it to Alice and her otherworldly yet grounded manner of speaking to state what I fully expect to be the focal, underlying concern of these four hours: Luther's choice between his destructively obsessive devotion to his ongoing mission for justice and that of a fresh break and the pursuit of a new life--which could very well lead to the salvation he needs.

In the meantime, though, Luther is still on the case, and the episode closes with a suspenseful final stretch somewhat cheapened at the very end by a gimmick generally reserved as a crutch for lesser thrillers--but I recognize that as a bit of a "tune in next week!" cliffhanging concession to the two-part installment structure of this go-round. If the tease for next week is any indication, this particular case may head to a close but the real meat of the ongoing character and thematic drama truly starts up, with the barely-suppressed internal and interpersonal demons breaking to the surface--and that, not any psychopath of the week, is what Luther is really all about.

Buy the Luther series 1 DVD here.
Sign up for notifications on Neil Cross's Luther: The Calling prequel novel here.


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