fri 21/07/2017

River, BBC One | reviews, news & interviews

River, BBC One

River, BBC One

Stellan Skarsgård plays a bereaved detective in a meandering script by Abi Morgan

Stellan Skarsgård: not quite at home among the fixtures and fittings of a British crime drama

Crime drama is a bit like the wheel. There’s only so much scope for reinvention. People try to come up with novelties all the time, then you turn on the telly and realise everyone else has had the same idea. Rumpled cops in macs, ex-cops haunted by the past, cops with overbearing bosses descended from Jane Tennison – they’re all out there, all the time. Even the casting department is running on empty. It’s been precisely five days since Unforgotten unveiled a chirpy detective played by Nicola Walker. Now here comes River, featuring a chirpy detective played by Nicola Walker.

River is written by Abi Morgan, who has replaced Andrew Davies as the fons et origo of half the annual precipitation of scripts. She has talked in interview about the difficulty of coming at the procedural genre from a fresh angle. DI John River (Stellan Skarsgård) doesn’t seem to have fallen too far from the tree. He hates holidays, works too hard, collects old 33rpms, lives alone, talks to himself and doesn’t believe in love – the closest he got “was like food poisoning”. Plus he’s a Scandy with chilly blue eyes, and they’re hardly rarities these days.

Imagine Ingmar Bergman collaborating with Lynda LaPlante

No, the difference – the USP – is that River sees dead people. A girl whose death he is trying to solve chats to him in his bathroom. His partner, whose murder he has recently witnessed, keeps up a running commentary at his shoulder. He even sees the ghost of the Lambeth Poisoner Dr Thomas Cream (Eddie Marsan, pictured below) whose life story he is reading. Students of Morgan’s work will note that this trope is a straight lift from The Iron Lady, in which Mrs T in incipient dementia was visited by Denis.

The opening finds River and his sidekick Stevenson (Walker) driving through London conforming to a classic cop double act – her perky, him grumpy – until he spots a suspect and chases him into a housing estate. It’s a bog-standard down-payment of adrenaline until you twig that Stevie, as she’s known, is dead – the back of her head has been stoved in – and River is psychotically bereaved.

While a drama which claims to take the issue of mental health seriously deserves applause, it’s not clear if River is that drama. The prison corridor encounters with Cream flirt with absurdity. Nor does it yet tick the boxes of formal crime drama. River’s main task in the first episode was to prove a young man did not murder a girl despite admitting his guilt, and he prevented the boy’s suicide by correctly interpreting a crucial bit of Romeo and Juliet, which you probably didn't see coming.

Not since The Singing Detective has a crime drama been so interested in apparitions and so uninterested in the grammar of the genre. River's divided mind is semaphored in a running questionnaire: he's asked if he prefers Revolver or Sgt Pepper, Linda or Yoko? The viewers are not given a binary choice in this Anglo-Nordic hybrid (other than take it or leave it). Imagine Ingmar Bergman collaborating with Lynda LaPlante.

There are some attractive performances: Lesley Manville as River's worried boss and Adeel Akhtar as River’s baffled sidekick. But River is very much dependent on the appeal of Skarsgård, always an interesting actor but somehow not at home among the fixtures and fittings of a British crime drama. You watch Walker’s enchanting performance and wish her character were still alive. Admittedly that is the point.

@JasperRees

 

Not since The Singing Detective has a crime drama been so interested in apparitions

rating

Editor Rating: 
3
Average: 3 (1 vote)

Share this article

Add comment

Subscribe to theartsdesk.com

Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 10,000 pieces, we're asking for £2.95 per month or £25 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take an annual subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?

newsletter

Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters