Tuesday, November 15, 2011


Idris Elba has presence. It's hard to define, but one knows it when one sees it and one sees it in him.  He is a superb actor.  Just compare his performance in The Wire and in Luther.  In The Wire, he is the brains behind a Baltimore criminal gang.  He doesn't say much but he gives off a smiling menace that fills the screen.  He is the thinking person's American gangster through and through.  Even his walk seems to be exactly what one imagines it should be.  And there is a moment in an early episode when he is clearly entering a liaison with the wife of a jailed gang member.  All we see is his hand slowly undoing a zip.  That's it, nothing else, but it is very sexy.  That is presence.

Then, in Luther, which is Neil Cross writing at the top of his game, Elba is a London police detective.  Again, he doesn't say much but his miniscule facial expressions say it all.  And he walks with the shoulders first, rolling style of a London bloke.  Again, he fills the screen with his presence.  It is not because he is a super-hero.  Clearly, he is an anti-hero in The Wire and in Luther, he might be simultaneously sharp-witted and intuitive, but he also has difficulty with relationships, particularly with women, and he often finds himself in lonely places, troubled by what to do next.  Throughout all though, his presence is magnetic, drawing one into the small screen.

There are others with presence who appear on the big or the small screen.  It is not a quality that gradually emerges but one that is apparent almost immediately.  It is hard to pin down what it is about the person that make it so obvious.  It could be size.  One might think that being very large would create presence.  It certainly helps if the person is filling more than the average amount of space.  But size is hard to judge, particularly on the small screen and certainly not every basket-baller that one sees interviewed has presence - in fact quite a few have whatever is its opposite. And then there are actors like Al Pacino.  He has instant presence in spite of taking up very little space.  He can do it with his voice, but he also has it just by being on screen.

Idris Elba is big, of course, but this is not it.  It is something to do with stillness.  At times, he might walk fast or even run, but mostly he is quite still, seemingly slow to react and sometimes apparently not reacting at all.  This is Clint Eastwood in the spaghetti westerns.  The most one saw was the rolling of an unlit cigar in the lips.  It meant many things, depending on the circumstances, but it usually involved mayhem for someone else.  Idris Elba has no cigar.  The sheer immobility of his face results in either a few words that penetrate whatever is going on or in some rapid physical action.

In the right person then, whether on screen or not, this stillness generates presence and the writers of The Wire and Luther are astute enough to have seen it in Idris Elba and he is astute enough to project it.  If you haven't yet seen any of either series, I envy you the experience to come.

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