River is a drama I was looking forward to from when I first saw the trailer, but as with the recent From Darkness, this is another case of the BBC going through a phase of trying to copy Notdic Noir and not really succeeding at all. The whole episode felt like a checklist of well-worn elements of previous cop drama series, all topped off with lots of arty shots, such as Detective/Sgt/Whatever River sitting in a cafe looking despondent, but the camera cutting off half his face.
And that’s another tired overuse. The title was the surname of the main character. And it’s also the same word that describes a physical object. It needed to be stellar to shoot above that rainbow, but even with Stellan Skarsgård in the lead role, it wasn’t.
John River (Skarsgård) was shown to be partnered with Jackie ‘Stevie’ Stevenson (Nicola Walker from The Last Train), amongst a very strong cast, reminiscent of Walker’s Unforgotten, yet with each of them actually having a decent reason to be there, but overall, the checklist of “seen it all before” cliches – including some nicked from the Nordic Noir-style, left me feeling as tired as ol’ man River, himself….
- 1. Some muffled audio in a scene means *bad stuff* is about to go down. Stellan looks into a store and sees a not-very-angry looking young man, Christopher Riley, who we later see *may* have killed Stevie. He gives chase. There’s lots of slomo, even for footage of Stevie, suggesting at that time that she’s still alive as she’s talking to him like he is.
- 2. River is an old man and he’s out of shape.
- 3. He chases the baddie up a housing block, into his flat, the lad jumps out the back, conveniently landing exactly centrally splat onto a car.
- 4. He’s obsessed with a case he’s no longer on, and thus referred for psychiatric evaluations.
- 5. He keeps seeing Stevie, like a ghost, talking to him. Yes, he sees dead people!
- 6. He’s a troubled soul.
- 7. There’s slightly mournful music in the background.
- 8. He has his Maverick ways in order to get results, which also anger his boss
- 9. He travels around grim-looking locations
- 10. He has a delapidated flat
- 11. He sits and looks into the middle distance
- 12. He’s a shell of a man
- 13. He’s a cop with a bolshy female boss (Chrissie Read, played by Lesley Manville)
- 14. He gets a new partner (Ira – Adeel Akhtar). They hate each other. Eventually they find common ground (- he and River agree on the burning question “Revolver or Sgt Pepper”? The answer is Sgt Pepper.)
- 15. There’s an early poignant moment which gets a callback at the end of the episode. In this case, it’s the Tina Charles pop ditty “I Love To Love”. Alas, the effect of the callback was completely killed by being waffled over by bloody continuity announcers.
River says he doesn’t see ghosts, he sees “manifests”, i.e. he talks to Stevie and others in the often-romanticised way he remembers them. This includes his late daughter Erin, but not the angry Victorian killer Thomas Cream (Eddie Marsan) who he’s currently reading about. And there’s another attempt to be all clever like Nordic Noir – huge passages of text about Cream are thrown in to fill time, but all they serve to do is make you check your watch to find out how much more of this there is to sit through.
In addition, he’s witnessed the violent murder of Stevie – something which we’ve not seen for ourselves. It’s like the director is trying to confuse our vision same as River’s getting clouded judgement.
Basically, River is mostly rubbish but Stellan Skarsgård is a captivating presence so I’d stick with it for him, for at least a second episode.
I’d put down my disappointment partially to writer Abi Morgan, whose The Hour I could never get into, while for Birdsong, only part 2 was enjoyable as part 1 as there was more war-time action and less sloppy romance.
River continues on Tuesday on BBC1 at 9pm and the first episode is available to watch on BBC iPlayer until November 12th, and click on the DVD package for the full-size image. The series is available to pre-order on DVD, ahead of its release on November 23rd.
Episode 1 Score: 4/10
Director: Richard Laxton
Producer: Chris Carey
Screenplay: Abi Morgan
Music: Harry Escott
John River: Stellan Skarsgård
Jackie ‘Stevie’ Stevenson: Nicola Walker
Chrissie Read: Lesley Manville
Thomas Cream: Eddie Marsan
Ira King: Adeel Akhtar
Rosa Fallows: Georgina Rich
Marcus McDonald: Owen Teale
Bridie Stevenson: Sorcha Cusack
Frankie Stevenson: Turlough Convery
Christopher Riley: Josef Altin
Tia Edwards: Pippa Bennett-Warner
Aten Olama: Fady Elsayed
Marlena Fielding: Cathy Murphy
Erin Fielding: Shannon Tarbet
Bruno Marconi: Franz Drameh
Journalist 1: Mouna Albakry
Journalist 2: Dominic Hecht
Fast Food Server: Scott Hunt
Ursula: Jacqueline Boatswain
Karaoke Till Girl: Dockley Mieke
Security Guard: Steve Edwin
Young Erin: Nina Carey
Reviewer of movies, videogames and music since 1994. Aortic valve operation survivor from the same year. Running DVDfever.co.uk since 2000. Nobel Peace Prize winner 2021.