Is River ‘an absolute stinker from top to bottom’?

WARNING: Embargoed for publication until 00:00:01 on 18/08/2015 - Programme Name: River - TX: n/a - Episode: River (No. Ep 1) - Picture Shows:  John River (STELLAN SKARSGARD) - (C) Kudos - Photographer: Nick Briggs

(C) Kudos – Photographer: Nick Briggs

There was an interesting article on the Radio Times website yesterday (have a read of it here) from a respected journalist who presented a fulsome argument against River, Abi Morgan’s six-part thriller-with-a-difference. The headline itself – Why River Is A Stinker, From Top To Bottom – leaves us no doubt which way Alison Graham’s argument is going to go. But is she right?

Any form of art – music, film, TV – is a subjective business. One person’s masterpiece is another person’s goat, and when I first saw River I knew straight away that it would polarise the audience. It is different from your average police procedural, with central character John River’s ‘manifests’ (vivid characters produced by his subconscious) becoming living, breathing beings both aiding and abetting his quest to not only find his deceased partner’s killer but also to come to terms with her death.

On initial viewing that first episode felt like a ghost story, but River quickly proved itself to be much more than that.

Graham asks: “why doesn’t John River just ask these ghosts, the “manifests” of murder victims, as he calls them, “Who killed you?” Then they’d tell him and we could all go off and have a party.”

Let’s face it, if you didn’t like the concept of manifests in the first place they were going to grate on you after a few episodes, but what Graham seems to be saying is that River should just ask them who the murderer is and be done with it. To me, the point of these manifests are just that – they are created by River’s subconscious and restricted in their knowledge of the situation because they’re from his own head. They only have access to the same knowledge River has inside his head. They can help by remembering deep, buried facts and things that have already happened, but that’s it – they can’t solve the crime because River hasn’t solved the crime.

Take his manifest of Haider. It was swaggering and sneering and goading River because he had seemingly had a relationship with Stevie and River hadn’t, or couldn’t. The reality was very different – once he found out more about the suspect, he realised that there was no romantic involvement between the two. Stevie was trying to help him.

And there’s that word again – relationships. That’s what this series is all about. Making connections with people in a teeming, bustling city is difficult. Everyone’s a kind of ghost, and holding onto people is the hardest thing. It doesn’t matter if you’re a high-flying police person or a judge or whoever. Those of us living in London – and other cities – are ground down by the pace, the competitiveness. We live inside our heads and often overlook the ones we love the most.

Just one final point. Graham says, “I’m all for a bit of Scandi gloom, but Skarsgård, who doesn’t so much talk as rumble like a distant avalanche, is a black blanket of darkness. Whenever I see him I hear Joy Division’s Love Will Tear Us Apart playing over and over in my head. All of the great Nordic Noir shows – The Killing, The Bridge – had pulses of dark humour that made them vibrate, rather than just sweat with portent like River.” I agree and disagree with that. It is miserable, but there’s a point to the misery. River is consumed by grief for a woman he relied on, who he loved deeply. And there is humour, which is supplied by Nicola Walker’s Stevie, who frequently lightens the tone with wry observations and piss-takes. River has made me smile more often than, say, The Killing.

I’ve been mesmerised by Stellan Skarsgård’s performance. This great, big man has pain etched onto his face, and when he engages in fist fights with his manifests it’s like watching a person explode. Skarsgård oscillates between anger and confusion and vulnerability with such skill, it’s hard not to feel extremely protective of him.

So yes, River is miserable and he’s a classic ‘Tormented Soul’ paradigm. But what a tormented soul. Of course the series is flawed, too, and far from perfect in other areas, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen an exploration of grief and vulnerability as sensitively and interestingly as in River.

What do you think?



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