“Gentlemen never wear brown in London,” Lord Curzon famously said. Curzon, the viceroy of India who presided over the disastrous 1905 partition of Bengal and proved ineffective during the Indian famine at the turn of the 20th century, is of course dramatically ill-credentialed to wield pronouncements about how gentlemen should behave. In Netflix’s new series Lupin, the charismatic hero wears not only brown but, at various times, the fluorescent orange of a delivery boy’s jacket, a flatteringly cut purple suit, and black and yellow Air Jordans. And he does it all in a city more gentlemanly than London: Paris.
Lupin, created by George Kay and featuring a silken Omar Sy in the lead, is a stylish French series that aims to put those masquerading as gentlemen—those merely born into privilege—in their place. The series evokes the iconic ‘gentleman thief’ of French literature, the character Arséne Lupin, created by Maurice Leblanc over a hundred years ago. Instead of adapting Lupin’s adventures directly, it pays stealthier homage by making Sy a dedicated admirer of the fictional character. He may not wear the top hat and monocle—though Sy can surely carry that off—but literally lifts tricks and ploys straight from the books.
Sy plays Assane Diop, the son of a wrongfully framed Senegalese immigrant out for revenge, but going about this in striking fashion. The first episode, for instance, features Diop heisting a diamond necklace that once belonged to Marie Antoinette from the Louvre. Our hero is as chameleonic as he is charming, sleekly illustrated by a shot that stitches together Sy first as a floorcleaner patting down a red carpet outside the famed museum, and later stepping onto it in his evening best.
Sy’s character specialises in invisibility. It may be hard to imagine a tall, hulking, attractive man to blend into the shadows, but thanks to body language and makeup (“I never joke about makeup,” Diop says in one episode) he manages to appear like entirely different people, with—rather miraculously—entirely different smiles. If and when fingers are pointed in his direction, he counters them with insinuations of racism, the horrific suggestion that someone may have mistaken him for another black man mortifying them enough to second-guess themselves.
He stays a few steps ahead out of most people, but one man on his trail is another Lupin reader, a policeman who realises that the classic novels offer him actual access to the criminal’s playbook. He is, however, not taken seriously by his colleagues. Given that this investigator appears of Middle-Eastern origin and is being mocked by his white colleagues, is this another hint of everyday racism? That said, the concept sounds outrageous. “Who’s next?” they ask, about other suspects from books. “D’Artagnan? The three little pigs?”
The ‘gentleman thief’ is an old and irresistible literary archetype, featuring such characters like Simon Templar, AJ Raffles, Moist von Lipvig, and my beloved Hercule Flambeau, who shone in GK Chesterton’s Father Brown stories. Assane Diop, like Danny Ocean of the Ocean’s Trilogy (Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven, Ocean’s Twelve and Ocean’s Thirteen are all streaming on Amazon Prime Video), is a crook who respects the traditions of the great intellectual pickpockets before him. Here is a man who may be late for a meal with his ex-wife but makes sure to discreetly slip her the alimony before she leaves.
In a television landscape littered with fatally flawed antiheroes, there is something profoundly refreshing about following these exploits of a leading man striving to conduct himself with honour and class. This is a hero dedicated to—of all things—behaving well, and believing that his conduct makes all the difference. It may not, of course. He deals in deceit and his charm is often weaponised against unsuspecting people, and there is naturally no such thing as a victimless crime.
Diop justifies what he does through his all-important mission of revenge, of course, but also through a reckless generosity toward others. He lays a diamond on an old woman’s dresser because he had promised her husband that he’d make her smile. He is bound to acting with this grace—this almost performative grace, like that of a man in a top hat—and on the rare occasion we see him deviate from it, he falters and makes mistakes, nearly giving the game away. As Colin Firth had said so unforgettably in Kingsman (streaming on Disney+ Hotstar), “Manners maketh man.”
Sy provides a masterclass in equanimity and economy. The actor from The Intouchables plays Assane close to his chest, revealing his cards only when he must, and always appearing to improvise when he does. There’s a lightness and sense of play to his movements—his deft, feline movements as well as thuggish action scenes—and Sy gives this character, suave as he is, a distinctive modesty. Whenever confronted, he pauses before he reacts, his inscrutable face marking him as unpredictable as he is clever. It’s a preposterously smooth performance.
The five-episode first season is a rollicking affair, balancing knife-fights and thrills with a sharp wit and keen observations: Lupin is the kind of show where a writer names her little dog J’Accuse. It is also a show where a woman divides the world of men into barbarians and knights, both of whom she finds repugnant. It is up to Diop to convince her that there can be a third kind of man. It is an ideal both lofty and universal. The French word for ‘gentleman’ is ‘gentleman’.
Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.