River series one
Several years after The Hour, screenwriter Abi Morgan returns to the small screen with BBC One crime-drama River. The series is an emotionally arresting watch, heralded by a stunning performance by Stellan Skarsgård.
John River (Skarsgård) is a quiet and odd man. A police inspector in London, he is reeling from the death of his colleague and only friend Stevie (Nicola Walker), murdered on the job before his eyes. His mental health is faltering, manifesting itself in odd symptoms as he attempts to get through the day. He is desperate to find Stevie’s murderer, but his boss, Chrissie Read (Lesley Manville), is worried about the impact grief is having on him and refuses to assign him to the case.
Although a cop drama by name, the series is more like a study of mental illness, the policing a backdrop. Skarsgård is halting, a man ripped apart by sorrow,who uses this instinct – his uncontrollable, horrid pain – to solve cases. He is accompanied by young recruit Ira King (Adeel Akhtar), who is quick to discover the extent of his colleague’s instability.
The series builds to entirely focus on Stevie’s murder itself, while River looks for ways to cope with his aggravating symptoms. He finds help from Rosa (Georgina Rich), the police unit’s psychologist. While River is near-mute in social situations, his dialogue is perfectly formed in therapy sessions and in his interviews with witnesses and suspects, with perceptive comments about human nature, life, and the difficulties of living with illness.
Morgan and director Richard Laxton have created a dark, clinical vision of London. Buildings are all glass, concrete, and metal. In their investigation Ira and River delve into the lives of London’s poor and often overlooked workers and immigrants. The overall vision is that most people struggle to get by in an unforgiving, isolating city.
Skarsgård is stunning as River. He veers from mad smiles to vulnerable, tearful, and almost childish weakness. In an extraordinary feat, he manages to get audiences to root for a man who talks to himself – a huge step forward in empathy and for perceptions of mental health.
The series sometimes suffers from being a little unrealistic. For instance, Read protects her employee from dismissal in ways that likely wouldn’t be possible in the real world, especially under pressure from the media. He’s the best in her unit, but even this wouldn’t protect him from being sent away on health grounds. At times the dialogue – particularly River’s beautiful sentences – veers into the theatrical; for instance, in one of the therapy sessions, there is a declamation about the nature of love, which although rather moving, also feels contrived.
Yet overall, River is brilliant, shifting between situational comedy and moments of profound gravity. There’s a strong likelihood that by the end of the last episode, you’ll find yourself in tears – in a good way, but without knowing precisely why.
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