Clio Barnard’s slow burn drama, Dark River, plumbs the depths of sibling rivalry and resentment in the Yorkshire agricultural community.
Ruth Wilson (Luther, The Affair) is on blistering form as tenacious farm worker, Alice, whose suffering is swallowed down in difficult silences and emotional distance. After the death of her father (Sean Bean) Alice returns home to apply for the tenancy of the family’s farm against the wishes of her long-suffering brother Joe (Mark Stanley) who nursed their sick father while keeping the farm barely afloat.
Their taciturn exchanges are compelling in their awkwardness - tension seeping out from the unsaid until it boils over into physical conflict. Barnard’s dialogue is breathtakingly real: the first encounter between Alice and Joe in 15 years veers from cumbersome small talk to long held grudges and potent questions. The naturalistic performances of Wilson and Stanley draw attention to what is unspoken and suppressed. Together they bring emotional gravitas even to the film’s smallest moments.
Dark River is a drama about secrets and silence and the damage caused is pervasive. Flashbacks are notoriously tricky to pull off but Barnard (The Arbor, The Selfish Giant) weaves them into the action with unrivalled lightness and subtlety as Alice’s traumatic past intrudes upon the present. A sinister Sean Bean continues to lurk in Alice’s life to such chilling degree that we begin to feel him pressing in at the very edges of the frame. In light of this, the way Alice mobilises her inner strength to try and rebuild her relationship with Joe - a relationship that seems fundamentally broken - makes for both hopeful and painful viewing. Attempts to save the crumbling farm begin to stand for something much more profound.
The harsh realities of agricultural work form the brutal and raw backdrop to this unfolding drama supported by British stalwarts Film 4, Screen Yorkshire and the BFI. The complexity of tenantfarming and the conflicts between financial survival and respecting the natural landscape filter into the very essence of the story.
Physically and emotionally, Dark River, is rooted in the Yorkshire landscape. Its atmosphere makes for heady and potent drama.