Director: Clio Barnard
Screenplay: Clio Barnard
Starring: Ruth Wilson, Mark Stanley, Sean Bean
Runtime: 89 Minutes
There’s a niche being filled in British cinema at the moment, with quietly introspective character dramas focused on personal hardships, trauma and succession set against the backdrop of rural Yorkshire farming communities. The Levelling and God’s Own Country still loom large over the landscape, but Clio Barnard’s Dark River manages to craft something that’s unique and provocatively engaging in its own right – that is, until it isn’t.
The narrative is a reasonably familiar. Following the death of her father Richard (Sean Bean), Alice (Ruth Wilson) returns to her home village to claim the tenancy to the family farm that she believes is rightfully hers. But is complicated by the pushback from her brother Joe (Mark Stanley) who resents her leaving the farm 15 years ago, and the lingering memories the abuse that she suffered at the hands of her father.
The film’s conceptual and thematic keystones are established very early on, but it’s the way in which writer and director Barnard goes about them that keeps it so engrossing. Barnard’s work in the past has made strengths of managing to fuel the bleakness of reality and social and political discord with the trappings of fable and fairy-tales, seen no better than in her last work, The Selfish Giant.
Here she leans more into the ways in which the fantasy at play are the spectral memories that linger in and around the frame. The memory of Richard stalks the house whenever Alice can stand to step back into it, with Bean giving an ominous and almost wordless performance. Not a literal ghost but the spectre of something that she feels she cannot face – terrified of entering her childhood room that has been hauntingly left exactly as it was when she was a child.
These cuts and edits instil a sense of dread that saturates the entire piece, and Adriano Goldman’s cold but textured cinematography pulls in close to the characters faces as often as it pulls back to take in the expanse of the land that surrounds and isolates them. It’s very focused and tight, but it does come at the expense of leaving certain characters who become significant later on without much to work with or much reason to care about what happens to them.
It shares more than passing resemblance from an elemental perspective to the work of Emily Brontë, from the wilderness and arguments of succession to the central large house that shelters the wallowing occupants who chose to stay behind.
Wilson is extraordinary in her depiction of this character. An emotionally troubled woman who comes at the task of rebuilding the farm and taking it under control as a means of forceful retribution, and the position she faces as the lone female voice in a world of men leave her exposed to ridicule and occasionally misogynistic antipathy. But the lingering effects of her unspoken trauma still stand in her manners and touch, as we begin to realise just how complex the relationship with Joe runs.
Stanley is a wild-eyed presence who unpacks his own difficulties through brash emotional and physical expression. Sinking deeper into a pit of his own self-loathing and unwillingness to relent to Alice’s forward-looking methods for bringing the farm up to standard, he lashes out in drunken rages and outbursts like a stunted child in a man’s body. It’s a careful line to tread as the film occasionally brushes with a melodrama that doesn’t suit its approach, but he pulls it off very well.
The film manages to sustain this same sense of balance with its emotions on sleeve performance work and the harsh realist presentation that it acts as, right up until the closing sequence of the film. It takes a turn that takes it from a tone poem into a more predictably paced place of dramatic conflict that feels contrived as a means to taking it to the violent place it wants to go, but is very at odds with the tone established before and muddies its own thematic underpinnings.
Dark River comes in the wind of many like it, and if it wasn’t for scrambled denouement it could have been something greater than it is. But it’s an absorbing drama with two mesmerising performances and characters that works best when keeping to a sensory level of visual submission and grounding.