TV review: River, BBC One

Stellan Skarsgård excels in a superb new crime drama

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

Join our newsletter