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Five by Five

Idris Elba appears in and produced the BritBox special "Five by Five," which features five five-minute films by five writers. 

Idris Elba is one of the busiest movie actors around, from “Thor: Ragnarok” to “The Mountains Between Us” to the upcoming “Molly’s Game.”

So why is the recent Esquire magazine cover star making a cameo appearance in a television special?

Elba is one of the producers of “Five by Five,” an odd little experiment that has its American premiere Wednesday on the BBC streaming service BritBox. The special is 25 minutes long, consisting of five interlinked five-minute films, each by a different writer.

The show starts off with a cameo appearance by Elba himself, hiding a knife under his shirt as he heads out to a store for what seems like a fateful encounter. Elba’s character morphs into a teenage boy along the way.

Then, in the store, the perspective shifts to a woman in the store (Georgina Campbell), heading to a train stop with her own agenda in mind. Five minutes later, the perspective jumps to another character, and then another.

“Five by Five” reminded me a lot of Richard Linklater’s “Slacker,” in which the camera follows different characters through a 24-hour period in Austin. But “Five by Five” is more dramatic than that easygoing indie movie. Each five-minute segment has a definite conclusion, often a twist ending that challenges our perceptions of these characters. And it all circles back to Elba’s character at the very end.

Taken together, the five films represent an almost poetic vision of London, the big city as a melting pot where random encounters with strangers can change lives in an instant. Each of the writers on “Five by Five” had apparently never written for television before, and the show serves as a rare showcase for new voices on television. I hope Elba makes more of them.

Also on streaming: For those skeptical about the patriarchal dystopia presented by Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” they only need to go back in time for the Netflix series “Alias Grace,” which premiered last Friday.

Sarah Polley’s adaptation of another Margaret Atwood novel centers on an Irish immigrant (Sarah Gadon) who murders her employer and his housekeeper in 1843 Canada. The miniseries looks at both the murder investigation and the powerlessness of poor immigrant women in rural 19th-century life.

On a much lighter note, Netflix is premiering the second season of “Lady Dynamite” on Friday. The wonderful stand-up comedian Maria Bamford (who sold out the Barrymore Theatre in September) fictionalizes her life with giddy wit and disarming honesty. She promises a little science fiction added into the mix this season.

Fans of Asa Larsson’s novels, and Scandinavian crime fiction in general, will want to check out the new, eight-part miniseries “Rebecka Martinsson,” which premiered its first episode Monday on Acorn. Ida Engvoll plays the title character, a successful lawyer who returns to her small hometown to investigate a friend’s mysterious death.

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