Following this year’s The Levelling and God’s Own Country, the decaying farmlands of rural England appear to be replacing the urban concrete high-rise as the preferred setting for British social realism. Clio Barnard’s Dark River may well be the cream of this particular crop.
Barnard, whose Yorkshire-centric filmography already includes doc-hybrid The Arbor and The Selfish Giant, once again takes loose inspiration from a literary source – this time a plot strand in British author Rose Tremain’s multi-narrative novel Trespass – to provide the basis for a slow-burning, often suffocatingly tense tale of a sibling power struggle. Returning to the homestead of her childhood, roving sheep shearer Alice (Ruth Wilson) finds both the farm and her younger brother Joe (Mark Stanley) in comparable states of disrepair.
Ground down by the day-to-day care of their recently-deceased father (Sean Bean on flashback duty) and looking for a quick sale, Joe struggles to understand his sister’s motivation for returning the farm back to its former glory. The rightful owner of the property, Alice finds herself battling not only her ox-like drunk of a brother but also the spectres of an abusive past. To add insult to injury, an increasingly unhinged Joe accepts a backhander from the farm’s unscrupulous landlords to sell Alice’s inheritance from under her nose, setting in course a tragic chain of events.
Anchored by two exceptional, contrasting performances from leads Wilson and Stanley, Dark River expands upon the themes of childhood kinship central to The Selfish Giant, whilst at the same time serving as a condemnation of the historic exploitation and mismanagement of rural England’s once-thriving agricultural heartland. Throughout the film, bonds – be they familial or statutory – are abused and betrayed, the only true loyalty found in the duty-bound dogs that slink along at Alice’s side. A kindly neighbour (Dean Andrews) provides some respite from the mounting pressure, but as Joe’s psychological integrity begins to crumble, Alice finds herself in danger of losing more than merely bricks and mortar.
Sumptuously shot by Brazilian cinematographer Adriano Goldman (whose previous credits include Cary Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre) and edited by longtime Barnard collaborator Nick Fenton, Dark River goes some way towards further cementing its director as the spiritual heir to social realist master Ken Loach. Where Barnard differentiates herself, however, is in her dedication to exploring both the inner and outer-workings of her beleaguered characters. The key here is the perfectly-cast Wilson, constantly swimming against the current of her own harrowing memories, often telling more in a single glance than her sporadic utterances to her similarly-broken brother ever could.
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