Clio Barnard’s Dark River is a study in the psychological damage done to a family by sexual abuse. A dark cloud spreads out from pastoral flocks of sheep in Yorkshire, crossing time, space, and generations.
Dying on-screen has long been a specialty for Sean Bean, but in this film, he starts off dead and is seen only in PTSD flashbacks as the abusive father who owns the sheep farm where Alice (Ruth Wilson) and Joe (Mark Stanley) grew up.
Alice left to work as an itinerant sheep shearer while Joe stayed to help run the farm. Upon hearing of her father’s death 15 years later, Alice returns home to Joe and they must both face the anger they have for each other and the events of the past. Alice is haunted by her past with her father, while Joe is confused and broken from what he’d witnessed as a child as well. The countryside is lush and peaceful and is photographed beautifully, in contrast with the chaos of the farm and between Alice and Joe. Joe has been a poor sheep farmer and Alice sets about restoring the farm to functioning productively. Both siblings want to claim the farm as their inheritance. Joe is furious with Alice returning home after so long away and believes the farm should belong to him.
“…she comes home to reclaim her birthright and her relationship with her brother.”
Ruth Wilson will be familiar to fans of the BBC series Luther, where she plays a high functioning sociopath, also named Alice, opposite Idris Elba. She brings a similar barely contained intensity to both of these roles. As the focus of Dark River, she holds the viewer riveted as she comes home to reclaim her birthright and her relationship with her brother.
Clio Barnard has made three films about life in rural England and has garnered an impressive collection of awards as she moves fluidly from documentaries to feature films.
The film is beautifully executed with grace and lavish cinematography. Tone plays a crucial part in Dark River, with lingering shots of windswept grassy hills and sheep. Alice and Joe have difficulty communicating verbally, neither is culturally or personally predisposed to emote openly. This is a benefit to American audiences as the Yorkshire accent is so thick the movie should come with subtitles. As the tension plays out between brother and sister, Barnard steers us toward an unexpectedly bloody climax that leaves nothing clear or simple.
Dark River (2018). Written and directed by Clio Barnard. Starring Ruth Wilson, Mark Stanley, Sean Bean.
7 out of 10