BBC One’s River had a lot going for it before it aired, given that it boasted Hollywood star Stellan Skarsgard in its lead role.
However, was this just stunt casting? Another example of film stars quietly commuting to television for more character-based work between big superhero movies? Or does the new six-part crime drama offer something truly special?
From its opening moments you know that this is a quality production and the reason that they have attracted an actor of Skarsgard’s calibre is because of the integrity of the story. The Thor star plays titular character John River, a policeman still trying to cope mentally and emotionally with the loss of his police partner, Jacqui Stevenson (Nicola Walker). Her murder still haunts him, so much so that her ghost has become a voice in his head, trying to guide him to do the right thing, even if it’s not what he wants to hear.
“Should have seen this coming. You’ve never been entirely normal….They want to get a view of the loon, talking to himself. Its humiliating…I’m humiliated for you.”
The weight that he carries is not just about the loss of his partner, now manifesting herself as some sort of rational voice. He also carries the guilt of a young girl’s death: a murder that remains unsolved because the killer won’t reveal the body’s whereabouts.
Her boyfriend had confessed to the murder but River believes he didn’t do it. In a beautifully played and articulate scene, Skarsgard explains the feelings of loss and death so completely that it reduces the so-called killer to tears. In another, Erin’s mother explains her loss and how River promised her she would have her daughters missing body back:
“Seventy two days and still no body. Now if you can’t do this for me, you’ve lied…. I just want to feel the weight of her in my arms, even if it’s just bones, mud, something… something of her. I made her… I need to bury her. You promised me that.”
One of the main strengths of River in this opening episode is the layered storytelling and how it draws you in and is told from such an interesting view point. Crime drama with an emotional core is usually a genre reserved for female actors, while it’s ‘case of the week’ cop shows that tend to be headlined by men. To see a masculine, emotionally-centred breakdown is jarringly effective, especially when it places River’s emotional complexities under the microscope.
This is sharply written, cinematic television. Writer and creator Abi Morgan (The Hour) does a beautiful job of showing River’s fragility, mental instability, grief and guilt with just a few striking words. At its core though is a beautiful performance by Stellan Skarsgard as the broken John River.
Emotionally resonant, poignantly sad and yet endearing, he really makes you feel every word he says, clearly sinking in his own loss.
Aired at 9pm on Tuesday 13 October 2015 on BBC One.
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