To have a voyeuristic outlook of mental illness is a perspective that many might hesitate to view. It’s almost impossible to imagine having any kind of mental health issues, and that prompts the stigma which has plagued mental health for centuries. In TV and Film the quality of portrayal of mental illness is so varied that shows worry about including it at all. One of the popular concepts for this often try to ‘humanise’ the subject and make it as ‘relatable’ as possible (rather than showing the extremes of the illness) – and this is the concept we see in River.
John River (Stellan Skarsgård) is a Swedish detective working in London. The series follows John in trying to solve the murder of his colleague and friend ‘Stevie’ (Nicola Walker). Unable to come to terms with her death, he starts to see and hear her alongside him – as if she was still helping him with the cases. Ostracised by his colleagues and superiors, he is forced to see a therapist in which has to confess that he does indeed see people who are dead – ‘manifests’ as he calls them.
This isn’t a supernatural series – it’s a mental health one. These people aren’t ghosts but, as he calls them, manifestations of his own mind. What makes it more than an ordinary ‘whodunit’ type series is that fact that John interacts with these people – the good people are there to help, whilst the evil try to hinder. This constant battle is a good, visceral way of portraying a broken mind. Through the episodes he also encounters other dead people relating to current murder cases he is assigned to. In the first episode we meet Erin Fielding, a young teenage girl, who first appears in John’s flat complaining they have run out of milk. Whilst we initially suspect this is his daughter, it later turns out she is the victim in the case he’s investigating. It’s an incredibly heart-wrenching experience – learning about a person and their personality after death – whilst also giving some indications of their emotions prior to the incidents. This girl in particular has a very sorrowful story which is only revealed once River has concluded the case.
John himself is a very quite man – almost like a visitor, trying not to get attached to anyone or anything. His short answers and even shorter conversations make it rather hard to view him as anything else than a grumpy old detective. However, when he interacts with Stevie his whole complex begins to change and he opens himself up to love and laughter and all the other positive social aspects of life. only then do we understand his close-mindedness.
Mr. Cream (Eddie Marsan) is perhaps the most interesting character that explores the darker parts of Rivers mind. Unlike other manifests in this series, Mr. Cream, known as “The Lambeth poisoner”, is responsible for the countless murders of Women in the Lambeth area in the Victorian era. Mr. Cream is a vision that River starts to see in response to the book he is reading on his life. Mr. Cream appears to River as himself, raving on about the lives he has taken, comparing himself to an “Angel of Death”. Whilst we believe he is just a figment intended to provoke River he evolves into much more than just a historical figure. As he is part of Rivers imagination, we begin to realise that Mr. Cream is a manifestation of his own darkest physique – a vehicle which inhabits the anger, fear, and depression that dwells deep within him. As the series progresses, we see Mr. Cream appearing to River in the most delicate of situations plunging him deeper into a life-threatening mental illness. We also see River listening to him and inhibiting his negativity against the wishes of Stevie.
It’s also important to mention Hadar who is introduced during episode 4. River believes that Hadar could be responsible for the death of Stevie and makes it his sole purpose to find this man – prompting River to see him as a manifest. The image that he perceives is a cruel, ignorant man taunting him about his pathetic, un-confessed love for Stevie. Upon investigating him River begins to compile the real life of Hadar and finds an intelligent immigrant looking to provide a better life for him and his family. The assumptions he had created in his mind shaped the manifests personality – and so with the new information he gathers it shifts his perception of Hadar transforming him into a much friendlier manifest. These scenes help the viewer to further understand Rivers Illness.
Whilst the detective part of this series takes the back seat to River’s mental condition, it still makes for a new, innovative series (innovative in the way it presents grief). River, like the series, is constantly evolving and changing with each new piece on information he finds on the death of Stevie. Perhaps the Drama focuses too much on trying to evoke an emotional response from the viewer – especially when it comes to the interactions between him and Stevie – but that is almost entirely eclipsed by the quality of the themes and content. A beautifully crafted show that explores mental illness deserves high praise and River is no exception.
DVD Published by Arrow Films and available online from 30th November.