You wait years for a gritty social drama set within a farming community, only for three to show up at almost the same time. Fresh off the heels of Francis Lee’s brilliantly received God’s Own Country and Hope Dickson Leach’s critically acclaimed drama The Levelling, director Clio Barnard (The Selfish Giant) returns with the beautifully atmospheric and impeccably acted Dark River.
Staring Ruth Wilson and Mark Stanley as two warring siblings, Dark River deals with sombre, and at times, disturbing themes and offers a commendable, if not always coherent narrative thread. Having left the Yorkshire farm where she grew up under unclear circumstances 15 years earlier, Alice (Wilson) returns home upon learning of her father’s death. Hoping to take over the business with the help of her brother Joe (Stanley), the young woman makes a hasty application to the land owners in order to have the operation transferred to her name and start working on bringing the farm back to its former glory.
Faced with the prospect of working side by side with a sister who has become a stranger to him, a still better Joe refuses her help and makes it clear that he doesn’t need her interfering with his affairs. Things come to a head between the siblings when Joe is made an offer he can’t refuse, and subsequently agrees to double cross his sister. From the offset, Barnard puts huge emphasis on driving home the idea of a great family secret at the heart of the story. She does this by allowing two separate narrative to run side by side, using flashback and dreamlike sequences, the director manages to slowly reveal the powerful dynamics between Alice, Joe and their now deceased father, depicted with huge expertise by Sean Bean.
While visually stunning, Dark River is sadly let down by a frustratingly baggy screenplay which can’t quite decide which story it wants to tell. Despite her best efforts, Barnard who writes as well as directs, is simply unable to offer a believable enough storyline and has to ultimately resort to a hastily put together denouement, which simply doesn’t fit within the genesis of the story itself.
On the whole, despite not being able to tick all the boxes, Dark River still manages to be intriguing, deeply engaging and fantastically well acted. Having said that, the film sadly falls short of being able to deliver on it brilliant premise due to a jarringly meandering script, and an ending which instead of tying up all the loose ends manages to leave more questions than answers, which isn’t always a good thing.