CANNES — “Riviera” couldn’t have had a more appropriate setting for its world premiere: The slick, satisfying Sky Atlantic drama debuted at the MipTV conference, in front of an industry audience that very likely appreciated its carefully calibrated international appeal.
There’s nothing radical or challenging about “Riviera”: It efficiently combines elements of soap operas, murder mysteries and thrillers, and, as the frosting on top, it gives viewers a peek at the luxurious lives of the oligarch-adjacent global elite. Designer gowns, devastatingly expensive paintings, drop-dead real estate and fast cars are the order of the day, but those baubles are tastefully displayed within a story that appears to have a solid foundation and promising premise. Those who reveled in the similarly glam settings and the morally dubious characters of “The Night Manager” will no doubt enjoy “Riviera,” which features a strong central performance from Julia Stiles.
Stiles’ first challenge is to make the audience care about the crushing loss that her character, Georgina Clios, suffers early in the pilot. There’s barely time to establish that Georgina is married to a very well-off older man, Constantine (Anthony LaPaglia), before he dies, and Stiles does an excellent job of conveying Georgina’s stunned confusion and grief. Even at her lowest moment, however, one gets the sense that Georgina is nobody’s fool, and her curious nature and steely backbone give initial interest to her quest for the truth about Constantine’s death.
Lena Olin is also compelling as the first wife of the dead man. She’s not necessarily overcome with sadness when he passes, but Olin gives her character, Irina, a calculating complexity, and she and Stiles are well matched: Neither woman underestimates the other. The drama does not appear to be interested in pitting the two wives against each other for cheap or contrived reasons, which is a relief. But in relatively short order, “Riviera” establishes both Georgina and Irina as formidable potential adversaries — or allies, if the circumstances called for it.
Much of the action is set at the enormous and gorgeous estate owned by Stiles’ husband; Georgina has been installed there for only a year, and Irina doesn’t think she’ll last there much longer. Georgina’s three stepchildren — a son who works in finance, another son who feels ambivalent about the family wealth, and a daughter with emotional problems — live in uneasy harmony there, along with the usual servants and hangers-on. The only real ally in Georgina’s orbit is her old friend Robert (Adrian Lester), whom she knows from the art world.
Once it’s established its world of superyachts, dizzying art auctions and possible criminal activity, “Riviera” proceeds along two tracks, both of which contain elements of mystery and danger: Georgiana begins to learn about the secrets her husband kept, and she also tries to figure out who or what caused his untimely death. She clearly didn’t know all that much about how Constantine made his money or spent his time before he died, and she puts herself in jeopardy as she begins to put those pieces together.
Director Philipp Kadelbach and creator Neil Jordan makes the locations along the Cote D’Azur looking luminous and gorgeous, but this is no mere picture postcard. “Riviera” looks poised to explore the seamy sides of high finance, the fine art world and the South of France — all worlds with more than their share of fast-talking hustlers and beautifully dressed opportunists. Life in the lap of luxury, this drama indicates, is apparently not all it’s cracked up to be. But television audiences in search of a well-made, well-appointed escape may still want to schedule a visit.