Dark River Review
On the surface, Clio Barnard’s Dark River seems to almost replicate the narrative of Hope Dickson Leach’s successful and devastating 2017 debut feature The Levelling. Both feature a young female protagonist, returning home to their family’s farm in rural England, after the death of a close relative. Though similar enough to certainly warrant a mention - Barnard takes her film in a slightly different direction, retaining her signature style of gritty, realist British cinema. Dark River is perhaps not as unique as her doc-drama hybrid The Arbor, and The Selfish Giant falls more easily into the social-realist category, but it successfully stands its own ground against Barnard’s previous work.
Ruth Wilson plays Alice, a woman returning home to the family farm after the death of her father. Alice, having not set foot on the farm for fifteen years, has to face her past and her brother Joe (Mark Stanley) whilst also attempting to ensure that the dilapidated farm can continue to function properly. Alice and Joe both apply for tenancy of the farm, forcing unresolved issues to bubble over. With no clear authority on who should inherit the farm - with the added pressure of the farm’s economic failings and the family history the siblings must address - the film leads us down a dark and troublesome road.
Dark River relies on Barnard’s typical realist style - there’s little in the way of soundtrack, the story is told chronologically (with the exception of momentary flashbacks) and itself is a simple one. What is complex about Barnard’s film is the characters. Alice and Joe are pretty much the sole figures in the physical and literary landscape of Dark River, and it’s to Wilson and Stanley’s absolute credit that they keep the film engaging to the very end. Wilson particularly excels as Alice, a character whose pain and suffering is written very visibly on her face. Though the dialogue between Alice and Joe is limited, Wilson’s facial expressions convey her thoughts acutely for both the audience and her brother to see. Equally, the grief stricken Joe has a hard time coming to terms with the actions of his father - a truth he has been reluctant to acknowledge for the past fifteen years. Again, like Alice, Joe’s pain is represented through his physical behaviour and it comes out in the form of Joe attempting to set fire to Alice’s car. Neither sibling have the words to articulate how they feel, yet (thanks to careful direction from Barnard) the audience are not left wondering what is really going on.
The brief but recurring flashbacks are, of course, the key to understanding Alice’s journey and Joe’s mindset. Both siblings carry the emotional burden of their childhoods in differing ways. It is mostly Alice who suffers from the traumatic flashbacks which only increase as she returns first to her family home, and then to her childhood bedroom. Though he utters one line throughout the film (and a haunting line it is), Sean Bean cuts a haunting figure as Alice’s deceased father, lingering in the corners of the farmhouse and in the depths of Alice’s memories.
There is an internal battle throughout Dark River which is mirrored in the external landscape of the farm and the task of keeping the farm economically viable. Just as Alice has reverted back to a childlike state of fear on her return home, so has the farm returned to an unmanageable state. It’s heavily implied that Joe and their father allowed the farm to fall into disrepair, neglecting the work that needed to be done and relinquishing their responsibilities. In this way, Alice feels it is her deserved right to have the farm transferred to her name, just as she is trying to reclaim power over her own childhood. Narratives about returning home to correct one’s childhood are not uncommon in cinema, but Barnard gives the genre a interesting twist in this way.
For all its successes, Dark River suffers heavily towards its climax. Having established a quiet stillness which is consistent throughout the first half, the second feels like it was cut from a completely different film. Much of the tension in Dark River comes from the uncomfortable silences and the events that go on beyond where Barnard’s camera takes us. This changes dramatically in the third act and it is jarring. The nuance of Alice’s personal history is replaced with an over-dramatic chase sequence, and though there is clearly some significance regarding the location of the final narrative twist - the film is worse off for the breakneck change in pace and tone. It feels incredibly rushed, and is ultimately a disappointing end to what began as a subtle film exploring the complexities of guilt, grief and abuse.
With strong performances, Dark River manages to carry itself well and is thoroughly engaging right up until its ending which is a step too far and feels unbelievable in comparison to the rest of the film. It might convince some audiences, but overall Dark River deserved a far more compelling culmination to round off an otherwise achingly beautiful film.