Luther series 5 review – episode 1: Idris Elba isn’t dazzlingly sexy enough to distract from the new season’s shortcomings

Elba proceeds through grisly murder after grisly murder like a kind of totem pole, with the occasional nod or grunt. He has won serious acting awards. I have no idea why

Ed Cumming
Tuesday 01 January 2019 23:01 GMT
Trailer for Luther Series 5 starring Idris Elba

There is a sub-EastEnders twist in the final scene of the new Luther (BBC1). It was heavily trailed but I won’t ruin the surprise, for the one person reading this wondering if they ought to watch. Though it is schlocky, the ending comes as a relief because it brings the hope the next episodes might be watchable.

Until then, the most pressing query is: how attractive is Idris Elba, exactly? Is television’s ambassador from the people’s republic of Hackney so dazzlingly sexy that millions of viewers can overlook Luther’s shortcomings?

He cannot be said to do much acting. In the opening scene, he slams a fugitive into a shipping container at walking pace. It is not a bad metaphor for his general MO. He proceeds through grisly murder after grisly murder like a kind of totem pole, with the occasional nod or grunt. He has won serious acting awards. I have no idea why.

Defenders will talk about Stringer Bell in The Wire, but with the distance of years we can see that he was insulated by a wonderful script and ensemble cast. His fawning Mandela in Long Walk to Freedom was the most naked Oscar play in recent memory. Other than that, we have Beasts of No Nation and supporting roles in a string of more-or-less dodgy blockbusters: Prometheus, Thor, Pacific Rim.

There are other reasons he is unlikely to be the next James Bond. While the western market might be ready for a black 007, other parts of the world are less open-minded. But you can see why the suggestion is made so often. He is best when being strong and silent. This is fine, of course: plenty of actors get by on far less presence than he has, but does he have the nuance and wit to carry long hours of drama on his own?

Not on this evidence. Luther was gritty and fresh in 2010. Now it feels flogged out. At the outset John is abducted and tortured by Kray-lite crime boss George Cornelius (Patrick Malahide), on the lookout for his missing son. Luther doesn’t know anything about it; he just wants to “go home”.

Meanwhile, a serial killer is on the loose, clad in a CCTV-defying LED-lit hoodie and clown mask, getting off on stabbings. The unusual psychiatrist Vivien Lake (Hermione Norris) seems to know a lot about perversions and the law.

Joined by his green new sidekick DS Catherine Halliday (Wunmi Mosaku, who won a Bafta playing the mother of Damilola Taylor), John sets to work. In a truly creepy standout scene, the killer crawls down the top deck of a bus towards his next victim, below her line of sight, but such genuinely emotive moments were rare.

In fact, it is a sign of how things have moved on that the first episode at times feels like a checklist of the problems with the series: Guy Ritchie mobsters, sexual motivations, exhausting grimness. London here is a cold, dark and lonely place, deserted except for the criminals and the police force trying to beat them. The victims are mainly attractive young women, their corpses squabbled over by swaggering men.

I kept thinking about Killing Eve, this year’s most compelling cat-and-mouse chase. There is just as much grim murder in that, but it is perpetrated and solved by interesting female leads, with believable relationships and humour. By contrast, Luther barely greets his new partner. What kept the first three series interesting was the chemistry between Elba and Ruth Wilson. It was her show as much as his. Fingers crossed something like that returns.

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