As seems to be becoming faddish, Sundance Channel has added a by-subscription, premium streaming wing called Sundance Now. To tempt you to part with a portion of your monthly discretionary spending, it is offering the glittering bauble of "Riviera," a 10-episode conspiracy thriller packed inside a dysfunctional family drama, or vice versa, imported from the U.K. and set in the hills of Monaco and the south of France. It's pretty.
The miniseries' pedigree on paper is impressive; it's created by "The Crying Game" writer and director Neil Jordan, from "an idea" by superstar rock manager Paul McGuinness, with some early-episode screenwriting by prize-winning novelist John Banville ("The Sea," "The Infinities"). (As Benjamin Black, Banville is also the author of several works of crime fiction.) There is a joke somewhere in here about three Irishmen going into a bar; certainly, one can imagine that "Riviera" was hatched in one, over a couple of rounds.
One of those projects that enlists an international cast to appeal to multiple global markets, it centers on the Clioses, a Greek family with banking interests and various shades of personality disorder. Julia Stiles is Georgina, the young American brought into their giant hilltop villa as the new wife of father Constantine Clios (Anthony LaPaglia), whose art collection she oversees. She has displaced mother Irina (Lena Olin), who is around all the time anyway, seeming to scheme when she isn't, and scheming often when she seems not to be.
It's no spoiler to say that, early in the proceedings, a yacht blows up, not accidentally, taking Constantine with it – maybe – and that things in the Clios house don't get easier afterward. Money-minded number-one son Christos (Dimitri Leonidas) has a full deck of sex, drug and gambling addictions; son Adam (Iwan Rheon) is writing, or more likely not writing, a novel about "the negative impact of marketization on contemporary human relations." ("Sounds like a real page turner," says his older brother). Daughter Adriana (Roxane Duran), when we meet her, is carving up her own arm.
Unanswered questions lead Georgina to go sleuthing into family affairs (Adrian Lester, as an old friend, helps out), which quickly lead in and out of secret apartments and hidden rooms, with clues and puzzle pieces guiding her from station to station (where a simple note would have sufficed).
Various official lines of inquiry are also opened, with an appealing Amr Waked as a Nice police detective – "Riviera" somehow becomes more convincing when everyone is speaking French – and Phil Davis as a man from Interpol who thinks it's a shame that rich people don't pay their fair share of taxes.
There are corrupt people who are supposed to be bad guys, and bad guys with heart; some of them are literally in bed together. (There is a good bit of sex in it, but it tends to begin at the end of a scene, or to end at the beginning of a scene, and is relatively discreetly presented.) For the most part, and to the extent that you can tell one from the other, the villains are better imagined, and better company, than the heroes.
The 10-episode arc and multiple threads mean that things will inevitably turn out to be other than they seem, perhaps several times over. "No one is who they seem, are they?" is actually a line of dialogue.
And yet very little is actually surprising; the outcomes are mathematical. If you have any experience with this sort of story, you know pretty much at the start who is trouble and who only looks like trouble. It's not unwatchable; even a mediocre mystery can keep you watching until the end, even through 10 hours, and often enough there'll be a satisfying personal exchange or well-mounted action scene. The setting is spectacular, without any help from the camera.
Though most characters remain thin, the performances are pleasant at worst -- Stiles is good with her character in states of stress, if less convincing in the quieter moments; one never buys her as an art expert. That she and LaPaglia have almost no screen time together, either before his character is blown up, or in flashbacks compromised by special effects, means you never really feel her stated devotion.
"Every myth has been painted a thousand times," Constantine says in one of those flashbacks, regarding a painting central to the plot. "But that's what makes them special; it's how the painter chooses to retell the story that makes it interesting."
Where: Sundance Now
When: Anytime, starting Thursday
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