Dark River is a challenging and provocative contemporary family drama from one of Britain’s most distinctive female filmmakers, featuring brilliant performers from Ruth Wilson and Mark Stanley.
Clio Barnard is one of several exceptional British female filmmakers working today and she continues to impress with 2017’s Dark River (following innovative drama-documentary The Arbor and coming of age fable The Selfish Giant). Her latest effort is typically weighty in theme and, similar to previous works, tragic in premise and outcome, but apart from its Yorkshire-based locale (a favourite of the director), is distinctive in concept. This time her focus is on historical sexual abuse in a post “Jimmy Savile Affair” world as a woman returns to her family farm after 15 years following the death of her father.
Alice (played brilliantly by Ruth Wilson) believes the tenancy to the farm she abandoned over a decade before is rightfully hers. But her brother, still living on the farm, enduring a hand-to-mouth existence and happy to inhabit a farmhouse that’s fallen into disrepair and infested by rats, believes otherwise. Alice, her specialism in sheep rearing, has managed to travel the world as a contract farmhand, but the news of her father’s death gives her the opportunity to run her own business, despite a return to her old home village recalling memories she’d chosen to forget.
Barnard’s interest in how the past shapes our future, which formed a part of her focus in The Arbor, appears here as the estranged brother and sister are faced with childhood traumas they’d both suppressed. What’s interesting is the dynamic between siblings; bonded by both blood and circumstance, their individual childhood agonies centred around a single antagonist as well as distrust of each other as the fateful result.
The director’s aesthetic is understandably harsh, framed by leaden skies above an aging, neglected farming infrastructure but counterbalanced by a paradoxical countryside idyll that’s fittingly threatening given Alice’s emerging history. That’s presented with a sort of ethereal quality as she witnesses her father’s presence at the farm, often referencing a past event which comes and goes from her mind’s eye.
Dark River’s real strength is, however, in its casting and by extension, the performances of Wilson and Mark Stanley (who previously played Grenn in Game of Thrones) as Alice’s brother Joe. They both portray a genuine, at times heartbreaking, authenticity that extends way beyond the grit and grime that adorns their faces after a hard day’s graft on the farm. Wilson is particularly adept at using pauses and silence to convey emotion in a way that words simply cannot contend with. Similarly, the Kent-born actress’s ability to convey a convincing Yorkshire accent is to be commended just as her display of sheep husbandry leaves no doubt Wilson does her homework.
Stanley is more blood and thunder but no less subtle when necessary, his own anguish often coming through copious amounts of alcohol and machismo posturing. Together they make a captivating pair; our empathy is not defined by clearly marked lines but by layered characters courtesy of Barnard’s script which never panders to emotion or overstates the troubling heartbreak that has befallen these two siblings. That the director finds a route to closure that surprises and actually uplifts without sentimentalising is indicative of Barnard’s skill as a storyteller. It’s also another reason to recommend Dark River as a challenging and provocative contemporary family drama.
Written by Dan Stephens
Directed by: Clio Barnard
Written by: Clio Barnard
Starring: Ruth Wilson, Mark Stanley, Sean Bean
Released: 2017 / Genre: Drama
Country: UK / IMDB
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Top 10 Films reviewed Dark River courtesy of Arrow Films which releases the film on DVD & Blu-ray July 25, 2018. The DVD and Blu-ray features interviews with director Clio Barnard, and stars Ruth Willson, Mark Stanley, Sean Bean and Esme Creed-Miles as well as behind the scenes footage.