Clio Barnard (director)
23 February 2018 (released)
28 February 2018
Writer Director, Clio Barnard, sets her third feature, Dark River, on her home turf of Yorkshire. The film follows itinerant sheep shearer, Alice Bell, who on learning of her father’s death, returns to the family farm to claim the tenancy, she believes is hers.
Her arrival, after a fifteen-year absence, throws her older brother Joe, who has worked on the farm all of his life. Alice’s homecoming is confusing and unwelcome when she tries to address the problems of the neglected farm. Once Joe finds out Alice wants to take on the tenancy, he flies into a downward spiral of violence and bitterness.
Buried family secrets and memories of childhood abuse, haunt Alice throughout the film. By making the characters tenant farmers, Barnard is able to crank up the tension further by introducing the threat of the farm being re-acquisitioned by the landlord. As a narrative device, it works very well, intensifying the pressure and placing a time imperative on the siblings to work through their past traumas, and turnaround a failing business.
There are many gutsy performances from the cast, but it is very much a two-hander in terms of the brother / sister storyline. Ruth Wilson and Mark Stanley do justice to their characters’ messy lives, and convincingly portray a fierce and raw sibling rivalry and connection.
From skinning rabbits to sheep shearing, Ruth Wilson, embraces the part of Alice Bell, distilling both fear and fortitude into her portrayal. Small characterisation points are used to great effect and the scenes showing the nervous tics she still carries with her from childhood, are heart-breaking.
As older brother Joe, Mark Stanley gives a forceful performance as a young man whose life has been shattered, by circumstance and by his father’s abuse of his younger sister. He is trapped by the past, like Alice, just in a different way.
The sexual exploitation sequences are dealt with sensitively, with Barnard using flashbacks and present-day imaginings. Opting for a ‘less is more’ style of direction, she creates suspense through suggestion. Cutting back and forth between the young Alice, skilfully played by Esmé Creed-Miles, to the adult Alice, the choppy flashbacks communicate a range of emotions, moving effortlessly from a sense of foreboding to jolted memory recalls. Both actors convey extreme anxiety, which is palpable on screen.
Sean Bean, as Richard, the abuser father, inhabits his character and is both menacing and pitiable. Bean’s performance is so well executed, it is difficult to imagine anyone else in the role.
Director of Photography, Adriano Goldman, captures the splendour and brutality, of the Yorkshire moors through the seasons, sharing the terrain that roots the sibling farmers to the land and their heritage.
A nod is also due to the production design, detailing impeccably, the run-down, rat-infested farmhouse, with ramshackle family possessions, mirroring the crumbling human relationships that have resided within.
Despite being justifiably renowned for drawing out compelling and naturalistic performances, Barnard’s climactic scene in Dark River feels hurried and overly-dramatic. Closing on a note of redemption and hope, it jars slightly with the gritty texture and realism of the rest of the film.