Director: Clio Barnard
Writer: Clio Barnard
Starring: Ruth Wilson, Mark Stanley, Sean Bean
Following the death of her father, Alice (Wilson) returns home for the first time in fifteen years. As she clashes with her brother (Stanley) for ownership of the family farm, she is also forced to confront the demons of her past.
Lonely and isolated rain-soaked fields seem to be a very popular setting with British dramas at the moment, with the excellent God’s Own Country and The Levelling using them as the backdrop to examine their own particular narrative themes, and so it is also the setting for Clio Barnard’s (a former lecturer at my old University – claim to fame alert!) third feature film. it certainly contains the usual uncompromising and raw drama of both those two aforementioned films, and her own previous films, but unfortunately relies too much on a few narrative contrivances to be quite as memorable as any of them.
This is a shame, as at its heart Dark River has some very power themes and subjects, especially that of dealing with very dark childhood memories, and there is of course the internal trauma of Alice; the visions she still has of her abusive father render her unable to even enter the farmhouse where she grew up. There is also suggestion, but never confirmation, as to Joe’s apparent knowledge of the abuse, and this is where Barnard as at her subtle and understated best, the minimal use of dialogue effectively proving that mere facial expressions and body language can speak many more words than mere dialogue can when it comes to depicting character’s internal torment and conflict.
Both Ruth Wilson and Mark Stanley are excellent; their physical performances complementing Barnard’s subtle and understated direction perfectly as the narrative examines a particularly difficult subject but does so with appropriate seriousness and respect. Barnard uses the stunning visuals of the film’s setting of the Yorkshire countryside to maximum effect, with Adriano Goldman’s superb cinematography capturing the isolation and loneliness that the rolling hills can produce perfectly. Water is not only in the film’s title, but also a key visual motif in the film, with Alice often using a local river to wash, while the fierce rainfall further sets the mood and tone.
Another main driver of the plot is who takes ownership of the land, the sibling rivalry and Joe’s failure to take responsibility for the decaying farm, but though this adds a very effective layer of tension to the already very futile sibling relationship, it does sometimes feel like soap-opera melodrama. While at under 90 minutes, Dark River feels like almost too much is stripped away, with its sole focus on just its two main character sometimes being to its detriment as other characters who play a key role in the narrative developments (especially one character in particular in the film’s finale) are treated with way too much disregard despite what actually happens to them. It may not feel as complete as The Selfish Giant, but Dark River is still a film with enough raw emotion that means it has some powerful moments that will linger long in the memory.
Despite a few narrative flaws, Dark River is still a deeply affecting and skilfully directed drama that is engaging and haunting in equal measure.