UK / BBC-1 / 2015 / 6 Episodes / 349 Minutes
Writer: Abi Morgan
Producer: Chris Carey
Director: Richard Laxton
Cast: Stellan Skarsgård, Nicola Walker, Lesley Manville, Adeel Akhtar, Eddie Marsan, Michael Maloney
Abi Morgan’s (Suffragette, The Iron Lady) idiosyncratic mini-series River won many devotees on its first showing on BBC mainly because it created a different sense of urgency and dynamic to the traditional murder mystery.
Largely focusing on the psychological battleground of lead character detective John River (Stellan Skarsgård), the show distinguishes itself by being a ground-breaking take on the police drama. Rather than offering a typical whodunnit, River is a psychological study of the detective’s emotional scars and attempts to deal with the loss of friend and partner Jackie ‘Stevie’ Stevenson (Nicola Walker).
These scars and memories become real to him in the shape of ‘manifests’ – basically non-supernatural ghosts – which only he can interact with and gain some understanding of his internal and external reality. One of these manifests is Stevie, a presence providing River with guidance and insight at times of crisis.
The story structure reveals itself to be more concerned with the nuances of memory and interpretation of events rather than tight, procedural plotting. The beauty of the writing shows itself in the fantastic scenes involving River and Stevie, with excellent support also provided by Lesley Manville as Chief Inspector Chrissie Reid. Her husband, the deceptive lawyer Tom (Michael Maloney) brings a further level of subterfuge and moral ambiguity. A fine counterpoint to River’s anguish is well placed by the wryly humorous and patient new partner DS Ira King (Adeel Akhtar).
The other main character who points to the fact that this is not a traditional format is the representation of River’s and the world’s bleakest aspects, 19th century murderer Thomas Cream. Played with fearsome intensity by Eddie Marsan, the character brings a psychological horror to the whole picture, and the true depth of the psychological inner struggles that River is coping with.
Filled with love, hate and disco, River is an unfalteringly humanistic approach to the police production. It brings a depth of feeling and philosophical intensity to the genre that is still relatively rare. Viewers are rewarded with a study of life and death that stays well beyond the affecting closing scenes.
– Robert W Monk