Dark River (2018) - Clio Barnard
Updated: Jan 31, 2020
Rural life has been fertile ground in recent years for British filmmakers. Clio Barnard's excellent Dark River joins Hope Dickson Leach's The Levelling and Francis Lee's God's Own Country as films that use the beautiful yet desolate and lonely setting of the countryside and life on the farm as backdrops for rich, emotionally raw dramas.
Dark River sees Alice (an astonishing Ruth Wilson) return to the family farm following the death of her father. She's been gone for 15 years, and upon arrival finds a frosty welcome from her estranged brother Joe (Mark Stanley, who excels). His cold welcome isn't softened by Alice's decision to try and claim the tenancy of the farm. A farm Joe has spent his life tending.
It doesn't take long for us to begin piecing together what drove Alice away from the farm all that time ago. Through effective flashbacks and the haunting presence of their deceased father, played by Sean Bean, the traumas and horrors of these families earlier life begin to bubble up to the surface. Their lives have indeed been flowing through a dark river. Alice can barely set foot in the family home, taking up residence in the pre-fab, run-down building on the farm, so haunted is she by the events of the past. Though she may be dealing with the grief of the death of her father, there are traumas and wounds that run much deeper.
She quickly gets to work making sense of the state of the farm and trying, futilely, to build bridges with her brother in the hope of finding some common agreement on how they can turn the failing business around. Her intentions are honorable, though you suspect, doomed to failure. The problems on the farm are vast, the pressures insurmountable and the strain of her return to the place, exacerbated by a broken, psychologically bereft brother don't help. What makes things worse is that neither Alice nor Joe are particularly good at communication.
Joe barely speaks, and Alice is so incapable of addressing the past that together they communicate more through non-communication. This is the film's great strength. Ruth Wilson conveys more emotion, heartbreak and psychic and physical damage in one look than any words ever can. It's a testament to both Barnard's writing and direction that so much is conveyed visually and through performance, rather than words. And Wilson is a revelation. The whirlwind of emotion she finds herself in, both in the present predicament of facing up to the past and trying to manage her brother and protect the future of the farm and in the experiences and abuse she has lived with her entire life are all palpably and magnificently channeled through her performance. All of which is enhanced by cinematographer Adriano Goldman's exquisite camerawork. Mark Stanley is equally as compelling. Complicit through knowing, he's clearly been tortured since Alice's departure. The conflict in him, over his failure to protect his sister and his feelings of abandonment at being left the work on the farm with a father he knows abused his sister is written across Joe's face and explodes uncontrollably at key moments in the film.
Like Barnard's previous film, the masterful The Selfish Giant, Dark River climaxes in a moment of unexpected, but inevitable violence. There is no escape from the past for either Alice of Joe. Alice's return can be read as a chance to reclaim her past, or more accurately a future denied her by the abuse to which her father subjected her. We learn early on that she has "seen the world" working on farms across the world, but in truth, you sense she would never have left, had she not needed to escape the abuse. By returning, does she hope she can finally put the past behind her by winning the claim to the farm. Joe is in a similar predicament but where Alice escaped, he's been left behind. He's buried the abusive father and seen the farm fall into ruin. Property developers see the land as an opportunity, and Joe sees it as a chance to get out from under the weight of history. Neither Alice or Joe will get what they wanted and Barnard presents us with a fatalistic conclusion to these characters' lives. There is some semblance of atonement for the past, but neither character can ever really escape it.
Dark River is a bleak, powerful and haunting drama that quickly gets under your skin, and once it has you in its grip, like the characters in the film, escape is impossible. Thanks to wonderfully atmospheric music, including songs from PJ Harvey, exquisite camerawork and excellent driection the film is a triumph and one of the best British films in recent years.