British telly-to-movie adaptations have a nasty habit of being mildly diverting at best, drably superfluous at worst. The pacy and surprisingly ruthless Spooks TV series (boil a lead character’s face in chip oil? Why not!) became the formulaic Spooks: The Greater Good (oh, look, there’s a sniper on a roof). The two Downton Abbey movies felt more like feature-length episodes with fancier locations and slightly shinier tea sets. And does anyone even remember Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie or David Brent: Life on the Road? (Okay, Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa is trend-buckingly great).
Sacrificing the strengths of long-form storytelling (multiple concurrent arcs, characters you’re deeply invested in) in favour of a slight uptick in budget, a big third-act payoff, some fancy helicopter shots and a flashy but pointless remix of that theme song you love clearly offers as many potholes as payouts.
Thanks to Idris Elba’s ridiculously outsized charisma, John Luther – London’s saltiest copper – makes the transition to the big screen pretty comfortably. Nonetheless, this long-gestating Luther movie still hits one of two of those potholes, like Luther’s vintage, fresh-from-the-garage Volvo on an East London street.
He’s helped by a more ambitious vision for the character. Instead of chasing villains through London’s shadowy corners and fobbing off his old boss (Dermot Crowley’s Schenk, now semi-retired and replaced by Cynthia Erivo’s less sympathetic detective, Odette Raine), Luther: The Fallen Sun elevates the gruff detective to a fugitive-hero in the spirit of an Ethan Hunt or Rick Deckard. Elba has talked about this movie as his answer to James Bond and you can feel it in a story arc that takes in Tube station chases, Arctic lairs, moles, and even has him offered a martini (‘Glass of water. But if it makes you happy, you can make it fizzy,’ comes the very Luther-ish response).
And it’s to the credit of returning season five director Jamie Payne (and Netflix’s budgets), that there’s a muscular action sequence in prime-time Piccadilly Circus that even a Bond movie would think twice about attempting.
Thanks to Idris Elba’s outsized charisma, Luther makes the transition to the big screen pretty comfortably
A bewigged Andy Serkis makes a creepy but thinly sketched villain. He’s a billionaire who marries the Grand Guignol game-playing of Saw’s Jigsaw killer with a tech bro’s ego and a Lego figure’s hair as he abducts seemingly ordinary Londoners for macabre ends. To clear the way for his increasingly grim murders, he gets Luther sent to prison for some past crimes – and as fans will know, season five offered plenty of those to choose from. Obviously, the big man isn’t taking this lying down and soon he’s out and on the trail.
Those same Luther fans will find the retconned opening frustrating – the end of season five and the beginning of The Fallen Sun are conspicuously out of narrative alignment – but perhaps that’s the price for upscaling telly to the big screen. The need to keep everyone happy – old stans and newbies alike – inevitably dilutes the formula. And maybe that’s why these big-screen adaptations come almost as a post-run afterthought, a final rinsing of the IP (Sex and the City: The Movie, El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, The X-Files: I Want to Believe, etc).
Happily – and thanks mainly to Elba – Luther still feels a lot more vital than all of those. The Fallen Sun is a satisfying enough way to kick off a Luther Cinematic Universe.
In UK cinemas now. Streaming Netflix worldwide Mar 10