Dark River

* * * * -

Simple but meticulously-crafted rural drama is emotional and harrowing.

Image of Dark River

Clio Barnard/ UK/ 2017/ 90 mins

Available on Blu-ray from Mon 25 Jun 2018

Five years after her bleak, poetic The Selfish Giant, Clio Barnard returns with an intense rural drama about family, estrangement and reconciliation that could have leapt straight from the windswept pages of a Brontë novel.

After hearing of the death of her father (Sean Bean), Alice (Ruth Wilson) returns home to the Yorkshire farm on which she grew up, having been away for fifteen years.  She expects to gain tenancy of the land but her brother Joe (Mark Stanley) has other ideas.  He’s worked the land with their father in her absence, although the buildings have fallen into disrepair, a state that mirrors the decay in the siblings’ bond.

It’s not obvious what’s pulling British filmmakers towards intense muddy dramas of mist, rain and mud, but Dark River follows God’s Own Country, The Levelling and the more elliptical Beast as recent examples of this trend.  Perhaps it’s the sense of some elemental human truth that comes through in man’s proximity to nature; a cinematic Occam’s Razor that shears away the distracting veneer of city dwelling.  It certainly allows for the landscape and its mercurial weather to do a lot of the dramatic heavy-lifting; a powerful augmentation to the direct, spartan approach Barnard adopts.

There’s nothing surprising, or even particularly original in Dark River; but every aspect is crafted with the meticulous eye of an artisan.  It’s a perfect example of show-don’t-tell, with bold editing between Alice’s traumatic childhood on the farm, and her taciturn adulthood laying out implicitly everything we need to know.  We know there has been harrowing abuse in Alice’s past, and that genuine guilt burdens Joe for failing to act at the time, but Barnard utilises every narrative technique but direct dialogue to tell us.

Wilson is as compelling with a furrowed brow as many actors are with a monologue, conveying myriad conflicting emotions simultaneously that the sparing dialogue simply bolsters.  A much-admired stage actress, hopefully Dark River is the first cinematic leading role of many.  Stanley matches her as a man pummelled older than his years by the elements, guilt and drink.  Bean’s casting is slightly strange, as they’ve had to de-age him slightly to play the threatening, but ultimately pathetic abuser.  Perhaps his involvement was instrumental in part of the film’s funding.  It’s also possibly the first time the oft-eliminated actor has played someone who’s died before the events of the film.

Dark River has the feel of a film steeped in its landscape.  It feels mythical, like there could be monsters and the horrors of endless folk tales around every corner.  Instead, it uses this atmosphere to conjure demons that are all too human.  It’s taut, tense and rather terrific.  With its conflicted heroine and its refusal to provide easy catharsis, it could be a sister movie to Hope Dickson Leach’s excellent The Levelling.  It’s probably Barnard’s most accessible film so far, but this has in no way compromised her art.