LFF 2017: Dark River Review
You wait years for a story set on a British farm and before you know it you can't move for sheep and pig muck. Hot on the heels of The Levelling and God's Own Country, released earlier this year, Dark River marks the return of director Clio Barnard, four years on from The Selfish Giant. As you would expect, she sticks with her social-realist view of the world, helped along by two solid performances by Ruth Wilson and Mark Stanley. Set under the brooding Yorkshire Moors it's the tale of a brother and sister brought together in the aftermath of their father's passing, facing up to a dark past that neither want to confront.
15 years have elapsed since Alice (Wilson) has been back on the family farm. Her brother, Joe (Stanley), has never left, working alongside their father, Richard (Sean Bean), until his death. Upon hearing the news, Alice heads back home after spending the last decade and a half working one contract or another shearing sheep across Europe. The farm was promised to Alice when she was younger and her intention is to stake claim to the tenancy while fixing up the dilapidated state the house and land has fallen into. While Joe is shocked to see his sister, he tries to welcome her back in his own way, but resentment comes to the surface and his own bid for the tenancy escalates the tension between them.
The drama is evoked not only by the bitterness and guilt held between brother and sister but by recalling the dark history that ultimately drove Alice away from the farm. Sean Bean drifts in and out of scenes, his ghostly presence still paralysing Alice with fear. Once back on the farm, Clio cuts between a younger version of Alice and Joe, played by Esme Creed-Miles and Aiden McCollough, and the present day. These brief snatches give distinct clues as to why Alice is petrified to even walk into the rundown family home, let alone venture upstairs to her old bedroom.
Cinematographer Adriano Goldman captures the Yorkshire countryside in all its overcast glory. It draws a comparison to his work on Sin Nombre that was similarly as raw and spirited. The natural beauty of the Moors is taken in under heavy skies that loom over the sibling tensions. Ruth Wilson's performances in Luther and The Affair has seen her stock continue to rise over the past few years and she does a fine job of emoting the inner turmoil of Alice. While the dialogue isn't sparse, it's not exactly a talkative film either and it relies on her ability to connect the present with a past she has long since tried to bury. Stanley is equally as capable playing a brother whose passion for the farm has been overwhelmed by his own loss of direction and muddied family memories.
Where the problems really begin to appear are in the last third of the film. After the steady naturalism that slowly peels back years of hidden pain there is a rush towards a conclusion that feels forced and heavily staged. You would expect the situation to reach some sort of head eventually but not necessarily one that it is so melodramatic and clumsy. The Selfish Giant used a similar narrative construct but was cautious enough not to overstep its dramatic boundaries. Dark River keeps itself afloat thanks to strong performances from its two leads and despite its underwhelming ending is a solid, if unspectacular, look at British rural life.