★★★★☆ – A gritty and unique presentation of one man’s struggle with grief, love and death. Interesting and touching – albeit a little cheesy in parts.
BBC’s River is a tumultuous ride through pain, mental illness and grief. With Stellan Skarsgard at his finest, playing the emotionally crippled detective John River, the series takes us through what it is like to lose someone close to you – and how close you may have actually been at all. With compelling performances from the entirety of the cast, and a pervasive gloomy tone that sets the scene for a host of brutal crimes, River provides a hauntingly effective police drama. Whilst there are a few downfalls and faults that can effect the immersion of the series, there is no denying that Abi Morgan has written a truly intriguing piece – one that offers as many questions about ourselves as it does of the characters.
The plot of the series is seemingly simple – after his partner’s sudden death on duty; River is desperate to find her killer and what truly happened that night, uncovering secrets, painful truths and family dramas in the process. The only catch is – in the most Sixth Sense way possible – he can see dead people. ‘Manifests’ of people who he has interacted with, people who’s case he is working on – and most prevalent of all, his dead partner Stevie (Nicola Walker) appear at random to cajole, help and torture the detective; working with him until their souls can be laid to rest by the weary man. With Ira (Adeel Akhtar), his new partner and his boss Chrisse (Lesley Manville) consistently questioning his mental state (it appears talking to empty air raises some eyebrows) River has to work twice as hard to maintain his sanity, his job, and any chance of discovering the truth about Stevie. A classic police drama with a twist, the show is a touching exploration of the process of grief – with Skarsgard providing a beautiful lead to follow.
The Swedish detective’s lonely life in modern Britain is one of many saddening dimensions to the character; the only solace and happiness we truly see in River is when he is interacting with Stevie – making it all the more difficult to watch him live his life without her. This multi-layered approach is not only seen with the protagonist however, as everyone we meet throughout the entirety of the series is carefully thought-out, developed and with purpose – which is a refreshing quality to witness. Directors Fywell, Hobbs and Laxton expertly manipulate our interaction with each person we meet to create the maximum emotional impact – whether it be the masculine laborers with deep felt, yet hidden love; or the nervous wreck of a mother that can’t bear to lose another child – each person means something and has a quality to offer us as the audience. Paired with a slow-burning narrative that sparks up unexpectedly each episode, there is an undeniable human connection to this series, one that can very easily take you by surprise.
From the opening episodes however – these embers of something-more were almost extinguished before they could ignite. With strange musical choices and an initial presentation of a plot we have seen a thousand times before – it’s clear that River is a TV show that requires a little faith to get to the good stuff. Parts of the series are as clicheas physically possible, and other parts just need a functional mute button and some patience – and I’m talking about the karaoke nightmare that is the first two episodes, killing a lot of carefully built tension and intrigue with a click of the Tina Charles track. In fairness, this is a brave and distinctive move – but it can be argued that it falls flat within the abrasive enclosure of the Brit-grit genre. Another point to be addressed is the extent of John River’s mental illness and how someone would really be treated if found beating a brick wall to death – as I doubt it would be with such leniency and freedom as the protagonist is here. Whilst necessary for the plot, it can be argued that the lack of subtlety is a little jarring.
Overall – River provides a fresh new take on a plot that can, and has, been worn down to the bone. By fleshing it back out with a seriously strong lead, an interesting take on death and some very personal acting/story lines; the BBC series has done itself justice with the six-part delve into the human mind. If you can look past cheesy tracks and hold onto your suspense of disbelief for just how jaded and mentally ill people can be in such a high positions of power; River will provide an emotional roller coaster like no other. Just remember the tissues for the closing episode.
River is out on DVD and Blu-Ray on Monday 30th November distributed via Arrow Films.
This article was originally posted to The Edge.