Mid-November saw the removal of another “Netflix Original” from Neftlix streaming. Like the last one I watched, River is a BBC production, this time in the form of a mini-series. True to their word, the DVDs don’t seem to be available in America from any source but Netflix.
The show is a police detective drama. However, befitting the title, the focus is more on detective John River and what is going on inside his head. Specifically, he speaks to his murdered partner (Jackie “Stevie” Stevenson) as he attempts to discover the identity and motive of her murderer. We quickly come to find out that his visions of the dead are not limited to his partner, nor did they begin with the traumatic event of her murder. From childhood, he has seen and conversed with the dead.
It is a solid piece and well worth watching, assuming you still can. The power of it is in its portrayal of mental illness*, which is at the same time River’s curse as well as a key part of his personality. The anguish and despair come through the screen and get into your own head as you watch.
River is played by Stellan Skarsgård, aged 63 at the time of the show’s release. His boss is played by Lesley Manville (known to me from Midsomer Murders and Fleming: The Man Who Would Be Bond, she is also an ex-wife to Gary Oldman), who was 59. Both look their respective age. Now, I admit that I don’t know how it works in London, but where I live this is wildly out of place. Police are frequently eligible for retirement in their mid-40s and it would be very surprising to find anyone employed by the police in their 60s. I’d also be shocked if the Metropolitan Police would ever employ (particularly well past the retirement age) someone who is known to his colleagues and management to be mentally unstable. Contrast this, in particular, with the ocean of paperwork evident in The Fall.
One way to solve is to assume, simply, an upward shift in the ages of all the actors** relative to their characters. Skarsgård’s contribution as an actor is important in other ways, not least his talent for what he does. River is portrayed as an immigrant from Sweden and his experience and a “foreigner” in London is compared and contrasted with the current wave of third-world immigration. This is all a critical factor in the mystery at hand. Many of River’s ghosts are also immigrants – a fact that is hardly coincidental. Stevie is Irish, of course. But even tormenting serial killer Thomas Cream (aka The Lambeth Poisoner) is a Scottish-born, Canadian-raised immigrant who came to London by way of Chicago (where he had served time for murder).
I’ll also mention a final point, one that surprised me. I found the English accents in River to be more challenging than the Irish accents in The Fall. Whether that is because The Fall was intended for a broader audience and, therefore, toned down the regional dialects or because Irish is easier for Americans, I cannot say. Two countries divided by the same language.
*The illness exhibited by John River is not, itself, realistic. As Skarsgård told the Daily Express “There’s not much research you can do because his condition doesn’t really exist as we know it.”
**In other words, assume they are all portraying someone 10-20 years their junior, but you don’t dwell on it because the aged adjustment applies to everyone. Think Beverly Hills 90210 or Game of Thrones.