Ruth Wilson (‘The Lone Ranger’, TV’s ‘The Affair’) is Alice, a brawny contract sheep-shearer who returns to her family farm in Yorkshire, following the death of her father. He had promised the farm to her, so she has come to claim the tenancy. As she drives home through the green hills, P.J. Harvey sings the frosty nursery rhyme 'My Father Left Me an Acre of Land' on the soundtrack.
Yes, director Clio Barnard’s ‘Dark River’ is sombre.
The family farm - an explosion of crumbling walls, weeds, barbed wire and peeling paint - is a metaphor for the wreckage of Alice’s past. All that is left when she arrives is her hard-living brother Joe (Mark Stanley, TV’s ‘Game of Thrones’), a few sheep, and her traumatic memories of her father climbing into her bed. Alice is followed around the farmstead by ghosts plucked from her childhood memories - not only of her deceased father (a silent Sean Bean, ‘Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring’) but also of her teenage self (Esmé Creed-Miles) and Joe (Aiden McCullough) as they were when she was last at home. Joe, who took care of Dad solo during the old man’s declining years, understandably feels possessive about the home he never left, and no small amount of resentment toward Alice. He initiates a competing claim that would allow him to evict her and sell off the farm’s assets.
Mark Stanley turns in a complicated performance as Joe, juggling his conflicted emotions at the return of his sister and the future of the farm, projecting occasional flashes of the less-embittered man he might have been, and terrifying in his one uncomfortable scene of drunken rage.
With her expressive face and deliberate movements, Wilson has already done some creepy work in a minimalist haunted house film, playing the title role of ‘I am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House’ (she's also in another upcoming spooker, 'The Little Stranger'). Here, she ramps up the anxiety as a woman haunted by remembered victimhood, moving around every room as if constantly anticipating an assault, her memories lurking around every corner.
Alice’s recollections of her abuse are intercut into the narrative, tricking the viewer’s eye into believing that her assailant is alive again and evoking the fear of a child awake in her bed at night, watching a menacing shadow blot out the light from under her bedroom door. It’s a fear that Alice has never shaken off, so much so that she refuses to sleep in the main house as it triggers flashbacks. Unlike Tim Roth’s similar but grotesquely explicit film ‘The War Zone’, Barnard uses these flashbacks to spare the audience the details of Alice’s assault.
Alice’s recollections of her abuse are intercut into the narrative, tricking the viewer’s eye into believing that her assailant is alive again and evoking the fear of a child awake in her bed at night, watching a menacing shadow blot out the light from under her bedroom door.
‘Dark River’ is partly inspired by Rose Tremain’s 2010 novel 'Trespass' (a story of familial and class conflict in rural France), and takes its title from a line from a Ted Hughes poem about grief and memory. Barnard’s loose adaptation (her previous film ‘The Selfish Giant’ also had very little to do with Oscar Wilde’s fable) eliminates several of the book’s major characters, turning the story into a two-hander between Alice and Joe, and leaving the film feeling slightly empty.
The other leading character in ‘Dark River’ is the cold and imposing Yorkshire countryside. Beautifully filmed with some exquisite shots of green fields, hills and rolling landscapes, cinematographer Adriano Goldman makes full use of the surroundings and accompanying weather.
‘Dark River’ is a beautifully crafted, thoughtful film, with exceptional performances bolstering its gritty, albeit slightly grim, drama.