TV Review: River

“We’re all shattered underneath really, aren’t we”

The second part of Nicola Walker’s cross-channel takeover of crime drama has been BBC1’s River. An altogether different prospect to ITV’s Unforgotten, Abi Morgan’s six-parter is aesthetically closer to the Nordic noir of which TV audiences seem unendingly enamoured but still manages to find its unique niche in a crowded marketplace. The Scandi feel is enhanced by the genuine casting coup of Stellan Skarsgård as DI John River but what marks out River are the people around him.

Chief among these is Walker’s Stevie, DS Stevenson, who we meet straightaway and instantly get a feel for their closeness of their professional relationship as they tackle crime on the streets of London. But what is brilliantly done is the shift from buddy cop show to something altogether darker as [major spoiler alert] we find out at the end of episode 1 that Stevie is dead, murdered recently, and River is in fact imagining her presence at his side, even to the extent of regularly conversing with her.

As the series progresses, we see more of the people that haunt River’s psyche- manifests rather than ghosts per se – and though the overarching narrative of the series is the increasingly tangled case of Stevie’s murder, the focus is on this marvelously complex and challenging character and the in-depth study of his mental health issues. And with as subtle and nuanced an actor as Skarsgård at the helm, these issues are sensitively and searingly examined to extraordinary effect. 

Trying to support him in both personal and professional capacities are Lesley Manville’s DCI Read and Georgina Rich’s police psychologist Rosa, both with their own complications in their private lives but both offering relief of sorts to River. The scenes where Skarsgård and Manville chat away as friends rather than colleagues are brilliantly done, Manville’s drunk acting is a masterclass, as are the silent communications when things go south during a dinner party (superb writing and direction in this case too).

Walker shines in the enigmatic role of Stevie too, acting almost as a conscience for River as he uncovers more secrets about her in death than he ever imagined possible in life, and she revels in the freedom of this carefree elusiveness, her spirited gorgeousness brightening everything in a world of increasing gloom. And as matters of immigration fraud, judicial corruption and dark family secrets build to a head, her levity is needed, especially in the crushing final episode, and the way in which it is eventually introduced should melt even the hardest of hearts.

There’s also great work from Adeel Akhtar as River’s new partner DS Ira King, finding ways in which to work with such an intransigent new colleague who is forever talking to himself; Eddie Marsan as the Lambeth Poisoner who regularly pops in to chat to River; Sorcha Cusack, Turlough Convery and Jim Norton as Stevie’s Irish family, closing ranks in the face of uncomfortable truths; and brief but memorable contributions from Lydia Leonard as Ira’s furious wife and Shannon Tarbet as a moving victim.

Powerfully written by Morgan, creatively directed by Richard Laxton, Tim Fywell and Jessica Hobbs (each making London an integral part of the show too – loved the cheeky snippet of The Comedy of Errors at the Globe) and compellingly acted by a first-rate cast, I loved River from its audacious start to its punishing, uplifting finish. So much more than just another hard-bitten male-focused detective show and one of the more intelligent portrayals of mental health issues you’ll see this year, you’ll also never hear Tina Charles’ ‘I Love To Love’ the same way again. Hugely recommended.

River is released on DVD and Blu-Ray on 30th November, and will be available internationally on Netflix from 18th November.

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