As an admirer of David Morrissey dating back to “Viva Blackpool,” the prospect of seeing him as a brilliant if difficult detective sounded promising. Yet the tired aspects of the “Thorne” series — which Encore is awkwardly presenting as two movies on back-to-back nights — don’t rival the best in British crime drama, perhaps explaining why it’s reaching U.S. shores on an unlikely network. At best “Luther” lite, the project certainly features some gruesome crimes, but never feels truly distinctive, squandering the services of a cast, including “Grey’s Anatomy’s” Sandra Oh in the second story, that’s clearly superior to the material.
Based on Mark Billingham’s bestselling books about Det. Inspector Tom Thorne, the first plot, “Sleepyhead,” directed by Stephen Hopkins, focuses on a serial killer paralyzing his victims — leaving them alive but unable to communicate — which (inevitably) ties into a solved case from Thorne’s past. The second, “Scaredy Cat” (helmed by Benjamin Ross), deals with two murderers apparently working in tandem, bringing in Oh as a troubled police subordinate.
The “detective with issues” template, however, is pretty full these days, and neither story (adapted by writers Dodi Appleton and Jim Keeble) creates much of a whodunit regarding the actual cases, while relying on gauzy flashback imagery that’s become all too common. If the books were better able to delve into the killers’ psyches as well as the protagonist’s torment, something gets lost in translation.
Six separate chapters running about 40-45 minutes each have been cobbled together into the two movies, made evident by the trio of distracting opening-title sequences appearing within each film.
All of this plays like a conspicuous waste, especially with Eddie Marsan as Thorne’s snarling ex-partner, “Game of Thrones’?” Aiden Gillen as his surly pal the medical examiner and (in “Sleepyhead”) Natascha McElhone as a romantic interest. Oh, meanwhile, is relegated to a cliche in the second movie as a cop with a drug problem.
Between BBC America and “Masterpiece Mystery,” U.S. viewers are being treated to a luscious onslaught of British crimers (watch enough TV and one might conclude there are a lot of sick bastards driving on the wrong side of the road), usually built around compelling leads, like “Luther’s” Idris Elba or “Wallander’s” Kenneth Branagh.
While Morrissey certainly belongs in that prestigious company, these movies don’t. The production has grit, yes, but for all its poking and prodding at what makes the title character and his quarry tick, “Thorne” never gets under your skin.