Saturday, March 7, 2009

Completely Cracker

By David Luhrssen
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Robbie Coltrane never became a big star except in the most literal sense. But this hulking elephant of a man should at least have become a major character actor up there with Phillip Seymour Hoffman. His role in the British television series “Cracker” was a tour de force of versatility, whether mordantly funny or in deadly earnest, intensely focused or under the influence. “

Cracker: The Complete Collection” is a 10-DVD set containing the original series (1993-1995) plus a pair of “Cracker” movies (1996, 2006) and a making-of documentary. Although the casting of even minor parts was uniformly excellent, Coltrane was clearly the star as Fitz, a disheveled psychologist drawn into murder investigations. Even as he brilliantly probed the mind and motives of strangers, he remained obtuse with his long-suffering wife and their two children.

While setting the precedent for Rebus and other blunt-spoken British TV detectives to come, Fitz was in the English tradition of irascible eccentrics sticking their thumb in the eye of social tradition. Fitz chain-smoked in no smoking zones, drank like a Russian and had no patience for fools or political correctness. He earned the grudging respect of the authorities that distrusted his unconventional methods but admired his results. Fitz was descended from the fictional detectives of Edgar Allan Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle, brilliant and idiosyncratic figures who saw through police procedures and into the complex psychology of crime.

The first “Cracker” episode, “The Mad Woman in the Attic,” was directed by Michael Winterbottom, who went on to such films as Welcome to Sarajevo and 24 Hour Party People. Winterbottom deployed the best strategies of contemporary cinema, zigzagging across time and place, creatively using music as the emotional through line connecting seemingly disconnected scenes and mirroring the jagged, decentered information barrage of a postmodern world that Fitz largely despised. Although other episodes were filmed in more conventional style, the compelling stories and Fitz’s enormous character carried through. “Cracker” is television at its best, which in the most 15 years has often been better than most big screen movies.

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