River, S1 (BBC1)

‘There should be more than one word for love.’

So, I’ve finally stopped sobbing long enough to cobble this together, after watching the most brilliantly heart breaking bit of telly I’ve seen all year.

Detective River (Stellan Skarsgård) is an odd bloke, but he gets on well with his partner, Stevie (Nicola Walker).  Even when a mishandled pursuit ends in the death of a suspect, Stevie is there for him with a smile and a quip.

But then – shocking reveal – Stevie is dead, and River is actually talking to a figment of his own imagination.  Yet these strange imaginings – his manifests – may be the key to finding out who killed her.  As River slowly digs away and the truth about Stevie’s death emerges, River not only gets to the truth, but starts to connect with the world around him after a lifetime on his own.

I liked the way that River’s condition was treated as genuinely debilitating, rather than just some personality quirk.  It can help him get to the truth of things, but really limits him socially, leaving him painfully isolated.  And it’s always been this way.  He was abandoned by his mother, and raised by his gran, who called him ‘The Mumbler’.

While River (understandably) lacks emotional expression, there is a great sense of down to earth humanity and warmth.  Mostly from Stevie: ‘You donut!’ Frequent references to Weight Watchers.  Ira’s missus berating River for leaving him alone.   These small, often awkward moments keep everything nicely grounded.  And painfully believable.  I was so invested in these characters, desperate to get to the truth but afraid of what the fallout might be.

The music is part of this, big emotional disco tunes filling in for all the things that River can’t say.  It’s definitely striking – I imagine some could find it jarring – but I absolutely loved it.  It works because only the pure, uncomplicated joy of music can counterpoint so much sadness, so many utterly awful people.  I always suspected twinkly-eyed Michael would be a wrong ‘un, but I didn’t see just how irredeemable the entire Stevenson clan would turn out to be.  Even poor Frankie.

And the breakdown of Chrissie’s marriage was horribly believable.  I loved the scene in the supermarket where she rails against the unfairness of it all: a lifetime’s work undermined, the gnawing fear that pursuing a career means that she let her family down.  ‘I hate you’ she spits at River, but she follows him back to the station anyway.  Down but not out, I’d like to think.

The performances were all faultless.  Adeel Akhtar had tricky job as the decent, unshowy Ira, bemused by his peculiar partner, but also determined to get the job done.  Sorcha Cusack was marvellous as Bridie.  Initially just a stereotypical Irish mammy, but by the end she made your skin crawl. Amazing job, particularly in that interrogation scene.  The way she just shut down.  Wordlessly showing that she knew exactly what was going on, and made the choice to protect the family.  Nicola Walker was also wonderful.  Warm and cocky, River’s perfect foil, then slowly becoming less matey, more flawed and vulnerable.  And that final dance with River … *sniff*

Stellan Skarsgård was marvellous.  Not an easy role, but he does so much with so little.  The aura of sadness around him was palpable.  I liked how, even though he could lash out, you felt that he was far more a victim than a (potential) perpetrator.  There is a lot of talk about ‘the mentally ill’ and how society should ‘deal’ with them.  But River’s strangeness helps him understand people.  He sees things no one else would, and his isolation means he understands the value of kindness.  There’s no big finale here, he just has a quiet word with Frankie.

The concept of manifests showed how much we just don’t know about mental health, or about how the mind works in general.  When does being a bit different become mental illness?  If someone can cope on their own, are they sane?  In fact, doesn’t everyone have manifests?  Aren’t we all building up images of the people we encounter inside our heads?  We all know bits and pieces about each other, but there will always be a side to people that we never see.

And River isn’t the only one that’s isolated. London has never looked so full of life and yet so uninviting.  Concrete jungle, artificial light, junk food, barely a tree in sight (except the one a teenager hangs herself from).  The whole story is full of failed or stunted relationships. Maybe we could all stand to reach out a bit more?  Be a bit kinder?  It’s so difficult to talk about the way we connect to each other without being maudlin or crass.  Yet this story manages to do that in a way that is not only intelligent, but beautiful.

Much as I loved this, I sort of hope it will be left as a one-off.  The story feels finished.  We got our resolution  and are left with the quietly hopeful sight of River saying hello to little Hank. And, honestly, I’m not sure I could survive another series…

Were you as broken as I was by the end?  Would you like to see more of River?  I must admit, I wasn’t fully convinced by the identity of the killer – what did you think?  Let me know!

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