Sky’s in-house drama studio may not generate the same deafening noise as that of Netflix or Amazon Prime Video but it has a knack — often through canny co-productions — for tractor-beaming in similarly huge names. Idris Elba and John Ridley brought a Hollywood sheen to Guerrilla, Tim Roth and Christina Hendricks will soon be seen in modern-day neo-Western Tin Star and now, mooring its gold-plated superyacht in the marina, here comes Riviera.
Muddled, humourless and thuddingly generic.
Toplined by Julia Stiles, created by Oscar-winning writer Neil Jordan (The Crying Game) — based on an idea from John Banville — and sprinkled with international names (Iwan Rheon, Adrian Lester, Chocolat’s Lena Olin), this £40 million, ten-episode thriller couldn’t really have a more accomplished team behind it. So it’s all the more disappointing they conjure something that’s so muddled, humourless and — a handful of compelling moments aside — thuddingly generic.
Still, we open with an arresting plot catalyst. As art curator Georgina Clios (Stiles) bids on a modernist masterpiece in New York, her husband — Anthony LaPaglia’s kajillionaire banker and philanthropist, Constantine — is on a Côte d’Azur yacht that’s about to blow up. Not long after Georgina has stared down Constantine’s charred body (a scene so absurd it’s a whisker away from spoof territory), her world starts to unravel.
There are battles with Constantine’s frosty first wife Irina (Olin), squabbles with his troubled kids (Rheon, Dimitri Leonidas and Roxane Duran) and probing questions into her late husband’s iffy dealings from one of Interpol’s investigators (an enjoyably grizzled Phil Davis). And then there’s the mystery of the woman who dived from the yacht moments before the explosion. Not to mention the clues that suggest Constantine may have faked his own death.
From here, Georgina turns detective, and what we get is an ever-growing tapestry of snarling gangsters, Bourne-like spy games, Dynasty-worthy twists and misbehaviour in lavishly shot French palaces. Early hopes were it would be akin to The Night Manager but, in truth, Riviera at times resembles overblown hip-hop drama Empire, minus the compulsive silliness. Opportunities for jokes or camp are mostly spurned for bursts of excessive violence — brittle youngest Clios sibling Adriana carving words into her arm, a desperate bit of prolonged torture late on — or overwrought speeches (“This family is a cancer, it’s poisoned at the root”).
What’s more, there are just simple questions of plausibility. Do we really believe Georgina goes from respectable art-world big shot to gun-toting mobster in a few episodes? A female-led crime epic is an admirable endeavour, but the more you look, the more you get a sense of the backroom “interference” Neil Jordan cited as a reason that, although he did co-write two episodes with John Banville, he didn’t personally direct any of the series. Frustratingly, there are scattered positives. Stiles has an easy chemistry with Lester (playing a wily old friend), Amr Waked impresses as a true blue officer in Nice’s crooked police force and there are some skilfully tense set-pieces.
Ultimately, though, Riviera’s central idea — that outward wealth often conceals darkness — is laboured to a maddening degree. And the climax, which we won’t spoil in case you go on regardless, feels wildly misjudged. Yes, it looks great but Riviera is overly serious, frequently implausible and not terribly memorable; in art terms, it feels like an expensive frame, plonked on a finger painting.