The Verse’s Oliver Pendlington tells us what he thought of Dark River (2017).
Director: Clio Barnard
Screenplay: Clio Barnard
Stars: Ruth Wilson, Mark Stanley, Joe Dempsie and Sean Bean
Story: In the rural Yorkshire hills, Alice Bell (Wilson) returns to her old family farm following the death of her father Richard (Bean). She soon engages in a war for the land with her temperamental brother Joe (Stanley) while facing her traumatic past.
Over the past decade, Clio Barnard has quietly proven herself to be one of the masters of British indie cinema. Her first two films, intriguing docu-drama The Arbor and superb poetic realist-drama The Selfish Giant, displayed her talent for telling powerful stories of austerity with real breathing characters, using the Yorkshire landscape as an important silhouetted space for them. With her third film Dark River, which had a special Cine-City preview screening before its February general release, she has created her masterpiece. Drawing upon what made her other films brilliant, it is an astonishing piece of cinematic poetry that is both brutal and beautiful.
As with The Selfish Giant, which took the Oscar Wilde story as its inspiration, Dark River was inspired by another form of literature: Rose Tremain’s novel Trespass. Barnard of course uproots the novel’s French setting to the Yorkshire hills, but faithfully adheres to its story of sibling rivalry and trauma, specifically through Alice. While strong-willed, her return to her old home reawakens intrusive lapses into her past that have a phantom-like presence. These lapses are shown through sudden split-second flashbacks, which are extremely effective. For unlike most films, Barnard uses tight editing and less narrative detail to only imply what happened between Alice and her father (Sean Bean chillingly playing against type). This stripping down of narrative detail and dialogue is present throughout the whole film and it works all the better for it; Barnard embraces the cinematic space and simply allows the images to speak for themselves.
Those images form the Yorkshire landscape, which, following on from similarly recent films like God’s Own Country, serves almost like a character itself. Brazilian cinematographer Adriano Goldman was chosen to shoot the film and, like Barnard, he understands the much-needed integrity of landscape to tell the story. By avoiding romanticised depictions of the countryside, he captures both the bleak majesty and rural isolation of the Yorkshire hills through dark lighting and a gritty deep focus. It is through this that Barnard visually reflects Alice’s body: she feels trapped and vulnerable despite her battle-hardened persona. Frequent collaborator Harry Escott widens this further with his haunting score, heard only in subtle snippets so that it becomes a voice in the background. Book-ended by his and P.J. Harvey’s melancholic interpretation of folk song An Acre of Land, it relates to Alice’s story and enhances the austere atmosphere around her.
As Alice, Ruth Wilson has been given one of the finest roles of her career to match her amazing talents. She portrays both Alice’s fierce defiance and pained hurt with aplomb, seamlessly switching from one to the other. Mark Stanley is an excellent counterpoint as Joe, her emotionally unstable brother who feels just as trapped as she is. Both actors, having never worked together before, had considerable involvement in developing their characters, bringing them to life in all their complexity. Their performances perfectly encapsulate the realism of Barnard’s masterpiece, a film that stands as a stunning work of British indie cinema.