TV review: River, BBC One (5 stars)

Stellan Skarsgård excels in a superb new crime drama

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TV review: River, BBC One

In the week that Henning Mankell passed away, it felt odd to be watching a new brooding, emotionally complex, veteran Swedish detective. Mankell almost single-handedly smashed open the doors to a broader European market with his creation of Kurt Wallander, the archetypal brooding, emotionally complex, veteran Swedish detective. From there, fellow Scandi cops such as Sarah Lund, Harry Hole, Saga Norén and the Arne Dahl crew have all planted their flags on the literary and / or televisual landscape.

John River is different in several ways. For one thing, he hasn’t been created by a Scandinavian, instead he’s the work of writer Abi Morgan (Sex Traffic, The Hour). And River isn’t cracking cases in a Nordic capital city or rural outpost, rather he’s a fish-out-of-water in crime-soaked London. Perhaps the only slight grumble about the opening pair of its six episodes is that no one gives any hint as to why he ever wound up there. Maybe it’s of no overall consequence, but it feels like a detail worthy of even the merest throwaway line.

Asides from that, River is the boldest new UK crime series on the Beeb for many a year, outstripping The Fall for emotional impact and making Line of Duty seem like dire fluff in comparison. There’s a core element to the show which will undoubtedly be spoiled by all and sundry ahead of time, but on the off-chance that you manage to watch its first hour from as blank a canvas as possible, you’ll garner far more enjoyment from its surprises. All that I’ll say here is that Stellan Skarsgård produces another hefty role in a CV forged by rank misery, with this one set up to explore big-hitting subjects such as mental illness, guilt and grief. His overall performance is aided and abetted by a wonderful face seemingly etched with innumerable traumas and tragedies in the line of River’s duty.

There’s excellent support from Nicola Walker as River’s partner who has somehow climbed the Met ranks despite emerging from a family of criminals who vary from the petty to the brutal; Lesley Manville as his largely sympathetic but increasingly flummoxed superior; and Owen Teale, once again playing a meanie in authority whether it’s in police uniform (Line of Duty) or in an armour-fur combo beneath the Wall (Game of Thrones). River may well blow it in the remaining four episodes, but as a starting point, the opening salvos are heartbreakingly great.

River starts on BBC One, Tuesday 13 October, 9pm

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1. Ken Pepper14 Oct 2015, 5:03am Report

Absolutely brilliant😱😢👌👏

2. rosie timps25 Oct 2015, 8:31pm Report

Totally gripped. Can't praise this drama enough

3. rosie timps26 Oct 2015, 8:39pm Report

The end of episode 2 I think gives an indication of why River is probably just as well talking to himself or his manifestations. Just as he begins to pour his heart out to the counsellor and asks so what do I do all she has to offer in reply is to say keep talking then she's out the building. Hardly the sign of someone dedicated to helping people but probably a more accurate portrayal than Judd Hirsch's character in ordinary people who was there when needed at a moment's notice whatever the time or day (as if!)

4. Nicola Wood30 Oct 2015, 12:22pm Report

This series gets under the skin. It's unique because it shows someone who's a loner, an introvert, socially inept and not afraid to be vulnerable, all the things you don't get in the world today, not on the surface at least. This is a human being stripped to the bone emotionall and mentally, a kind of ET far from home, trying to get back to the mother ship. He might be speaking for some of us!

5. rosie timps4 Nov 2015, 9:32pm Report

Could have done without the party political broadcast for the immigration party this week as the Somalian man river thought had killed stevie bemoaned the fact they're treated with suspicion just because they're immigrants. When we have people relying on food banks, wages below the rate of inflation and a population that's double that of Australia despite this island being a fraction of the size is it any wonder an increasing number of people are opposed to anyone and everyone with a sob story coming over.

6. Vince5 Nov 2015, 12:41pm Report

@5 thanks for turning a TV review into a political rant. The situations of food banks and low wages were not caused by immigrants but by the pathological greed and indifference of our elected leaders.

There's still plenty of room - the more the merrier!

7. rosie timps5 Nov 2015, 5:45pm Report

It was not a 'political rant' but a valid point of view and if programme makers insist on crowbar ring political points into a programme then I'm not going to just ignore it. Of course immigration has led to people relying on food banks and low wages. When there is plenty of labour coming from abroad why would employers pay people more than they need to?

8. David Howarth17 Nov 2015, 11:02pm Report

I have never written a comment before but River has been one of the best dramas ever televised, bringing Skarsgard to The UK was absolutely brilliant what a talent.

9. rosie timps19 Nov 2015, 12:08pm Report

The final episode was a very fitting ending and the dance sequence riveting. It was marred only by the mawkish baby scene at the end. We all know about the circle of life but it was like saying no one's indispensable on this conveyer belt of life and all that grief and all that went meant nothing because the futures what matters. I think it would have been better (more respectful) had the programme ended two minutes earlier when stevie made her final appearance in rivers rear view mirror. Otherwise an excellent ending.

10. Margaret Guest24 Nov 2015, 11:51pm Report

What a great show ! If the characters in broadchurch had shown anywhere like the emotion for the dead child as those here did for Stevie it might have been worth watching. Wish it had ended with them dancing ....I bawled my bloody eyes out !! Agree the mawkishness that followed diluted the power of the ending. He was just awesome but they were all great ira chrissie everyone ...well done all xx

11. Beth Bowdler29 Nov 2015, 8:43pm Report

Have now caught up with the last episode of River. Totally and utterly superb. I too think it should have ended with the dancing in the street to "I Love to Love" but that's my only criticism. Awesome acting all round. Hats off to all concerned

12. rosie timps3 Dec 2015, 9:59am Report

With the added baby scene, I'm surprised the end tune wasn't Buddy Hollys I guess it doesn't matter anymore!

13. Nabil A16 Nov 2016, 12:05am Report

Can someone please pass my comment to BBC TV shows producers and directors:

The BBC TV show River supporting actor Adeel Ekhtar looks NOTHING like a Syrian, or any Arab from the Mediterranean.

Cant BBC ever find a real Syrian, Lebanese, Jordanian, Egyptian, or even Israeli to take this roll? Why BBC always portraits middle easterners from Mediterranean countries as Indians, Pakistanis, or blacks?????

A true Syrian should look like, or be similar in features and skin color to their president, blue eyed Bashar Assad. I am sick and tired of how BBC sees the world as two types of people: either Saxon whites or everyone else is the same; no matter their race, language, culture or geography.

Here is the Syrian actor in River:

Adeel Akhtar English Actor Adeel Akhtar Adeel Akhtar is an English actor. Akhtar was born in London to a Pakistani father and a Kenyan mother. He originally completed a degree in law, but decided to follow his passion and change to acting. He trained at the Actors Studio Dram…

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