Am I a Luther convert? Yes. The plot might not stand up, but it's a cut above most cop series

The show's garnered praise for Idris Elba's performance, but really its most important character is London.

Luther
BBC1

Not even a TV critic can watch everything, so this, the third series of Luther (Tuesdays, 9pm), is my first. Luckily, it’s pretty easy to catch up. Luther is nothing if not hyped, which is why I’ve known ever since it started in 2010 that DCI John Luther (Idris Elba) is a maverick cop (though in this instance the cliché “maverick” means “borderline nutter” as opposed to someone who isn’t crazy about paperwork).

I was also aware he was involved in some funny business with a brilliant killer played by Ruth Wilson – though she seems to have disappeared this time round. In series three, her character appears only on a noticeboard, where her photograph has been stuck alongside all of Luther’s other “victims” by the coppernow investigating his dubious methods.

Yes, Luther is under investigation and it’s his loyal sidekick DS Justin Ripley (Warren Brown) who’s the mole. I doubt this state of affairs will last – Luther is almost certain to win Ripley round in the end – but it’s fun for now, a pleasing seam of reality making its way into what must be one of the most preposterous shows ever made. Not that I mind. However loopy, Luther is still quite frightening, the kind of programme that makes you worry about walking home from the bus stop (as usual, most of the violence – and there is plenty of it – is directed at young women).

It makes you jump and sometimes (perhaps this is just me) it makes you run out of the room with your hands over your eyes. In the first episode, a killer, having decided that he would not allow the police the satisfaction of taking his fingerprints, went into his kitchen and shoved his hand in his blender – a refreshingly edgy take on the 21st-century craze for juicing.

It’s quite clear that Neil Cross, Luther’s writer, is deeply in love with his creation. His passion is there in the small stuff: a serial killer who dresses his victims up like Siouxsie Sioux (“late-Eighties post-punk”, as Luther explains it to Ripley); a serial killer who fishes in the Thames for freshwater crayfish and then eats them for his tea with a bag of chipshop chips. Why does Luther drive an old Volvo estate? I don’t know but I like that he does. Delightfully at odds with his tendency to dangle suspects by their ankles over the edge of tower-block balconies, its low-slunk bulk is one reason among many why the viewer is never quite sure how to take him. Luther not a loveable rogue; he’s a monster with a badge. And yet he is sometimes on the side of the angels, morally speaking, and he cruises around London in the same motor in which I used to travel to Brownies. I wonder if there are Wet Ones and a tin of sugar-dusted “travel sweets” in the glove compartment.

Elba’s performance as Luther has been much praised (he won a Golden Globe for it in 2012) but he doesn’t have an awful lot to do in the way of nuance. I prefer Dermot Crowley’s turn as his boss, DSU Martin Schenk; one look at his hair (lank as day-old underwear) and skin (dishcloth grey) and you absolutely believe in him. If you could hand him his police pension there and then, you would, just as an act of pity.

But Luther’s most important character is London. The series is beautifully shot, blues always bleeding into greys and every pano - rama framed or gloriously bisected by some bridge or tower. You watch it and think: this is what album covers used to be like, kids. (Though I also think, sometimes: my God, I’m seeing Blackwall in a whole new light. The location scout deserves a medal.)

So, am I convert? Yes, I think I am. It doesn’t stand up, any of it, plot-wise but it’s still a cut above some cop series. And it stays with you. I keep thinking about a certain stiletto heel, as seen from the perspective of a man who is hiding beneath its owner’s bed . . . Tonight, I will be checking out my boudoir very carefully, just in case.

Monster with a badge: Idris Elba in Luther. Photograph: BBC Pictures.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 08 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The world takes sides

Lady Macbeth.
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Lady Macbeth: the story Stalin hated reaches the movie screen

Lady Macbeth grows less psychologically plausible the higher the body count rises.

Lady Macbeth (15), dir: William Oldroyd

Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, Nikolai Leskov’s novel about a bored, oppressed and bloodthirsty young woman, was adapted for the opera by Shoskatovich. Two years after its premiere in 1934, it had a terrible review, allegedly by Stalin himself, in Pravda. The new film version, Lady Macbeth, is set in 1865 (the year the novel was published) and feels resolutely anti-operatic in flavour, with its austere visuals and no-nonsense camerawork: static medium shots for dramatic effect or irony, hand-held wobbles to accompany special moments of impetuousness. The extraordinary disc-faced actor Florence Pugh has her hair scraped back into plaits and buns – all the put-upon teenage brides are wearing them this season – and the film feels scraped back, too. But it features certain behaviour (murder) that would feel more at home, and not so riskily close to comedy, in the hothouse of opera, rather than on and around the stark moors of low-budget British cinema.

Pugh plays Katherine, who is first seen reacting with surprise to a booming singing voice at her wedding ceremony. Unfortunately for her, it’s her husband, Alexander (Paul Hilton). On the plus side, there won’t be much cause for crooning in their house, no power ballads in the shower or anything like that. The tone is set early on. He orders her to remove her nightdress. Then he climbs into bed alone. It’s not clear whether she is expected to follow, and a cut leaves the matter unresolved.

Alexander defers to his grizzled father, Boris (played by Christopher Fairbank), who purchased Katherine in a two-for-one deal with a plot of land in north-east England, on important matters such as whether she can be allowed to go to sleep before him. So it isn’t much of a loss when he is called away on business (“There’s been an explosion at the colliery!”). Ordered to stay in the house, she dozes in her crinoline, looking like an upside-down toadstool, until one day she is awakened, literally and figuratively, by the sound of the rough-and-ready groomsman Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis) sexually humiliating the maid, Anna (Naomi Ackie). Katherine leaps to her rescue and gives Sebastian the most almighty shove. Pugh’s acting is exceptional; fascination, disgust and desire, as well as shock at her own strength, are all tangled up in her expression.

When Sebastian later forces his way into Katherine’s room, you want to warn them that these things don’t end well. Haven’t they seen Miss Julie? Read Lady Chatterley’s Lover? Thérèse Raquin? Well, no, because these haven’t been written yet. But the point stands: there’ll be tears before bedtime – at least if these two can lay off the hot, panting sex for more than 30 seconds.

The film’s director, William Oldroyd, and the screenwriter, Alice Birch, play a teasing game with our sympathies, sending the struggling Katherine off on a quest for independence, the stepping stones to which take the form of acts of steeply escalating cruelty. The shifting power dynamic in the house is at its most complex before the first drop of blood is spilled. Indeed, none of the deaths is as affecting as the moment when Katherine allows her excessive consumption of wine to be blamed on Anna, whose lowly status as a servant, and a dark-skinned one at that, places her below even her bullied mistress on the social scale.

There is fraught politics in the almost-love-triangle between these women and Sebastian. It doesn’t hurt that Jarvis, an Anglo-Armenian musician and actor, looks black, hinting at a racial kinship between groomsman and maid – as well as the social one – from which Katherine can only be excluded. Tension is repeatedly set up only to be resolved almost instantly. Will Alexander return home from business? Oh look, here he is. Will this latest ghastly murder be concealed? Oh look, the killer’s confessed. But the actors are good enough to convince even when the plot doesn’t. A larger problem is that Lady Macbeth grows less psychologically plausible the higher the body count rises. Katherine begins the film as a feminist avenger and ends it as a junior version of Serial Mom, her insouciance now something close to tawdry camp. 

“Lady Macbeth” is released 28 April

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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