Dark River – Film Review by Frank L.
Director: Clio Barnard
Writer: Clio Barnard
Stars: Ruth Wilson, Mark Stanley, Sean Bean
Set high up on the Yorkshire moors nestles a windswept farmhouse and its surrounding fields. It has all become run down as both the farmer Richard Bell (Sean Bean) and his son Joe (Mark Stanley) were battling their own inner devils. The daughter Alice (Ruth Wilson) left the farm fifteen years previously, after their mother died. In fact, it would be more accurate to say that Alice escaped. She made her own way in the world, becoming an itinerant sheep shearer confidently holding her own with her male colleagues. The film begins at the point where she changes course. Her father has died and left her the right to the tenancy of the farm. She returns to her past and to Joe. He resents her return and they have deep differences not only about how the farm should be run but also about what happened in their past. These sibling altercations are intensified by the fact that the owner of the farm would be content if the farm was put to a more remunerative use. There is therefore also the perennial battle in rural life of the new ways rubbing up against the old.
The past is played out by flashbacks when Alice (Esme Creed Miles) and Joe (Aiden McCullogh) were growing up and the father was in untrammelled control. At no stage does the mother emerge even in the flashbacks. There seems to be some sort of lacuna here as the story is loosely based on Rose Tremain’s novel “Trespass”. While the farm was in an idyllic setting it was not a happy family inside the farmhouse. With Alice’s return all of the past comes destructively to the surface and intermingles with the contemporary ruthless financial forces which inevitably challenge many marginal farms.
Ruth Wilson portrays Alice as a confident sheep shearer who has found her place in the world but also manages to show the underlying damage caused to her in her childhood. However, her father’s last wish was that he wanted her to take over the place and that is what she will try to do. It is a task far more difficult than that of shearing sheep. Joe’s battles are familiar to young men and violence and alcohol are his prime means of addressing them. For both Alice and Joe the father Richard Bell is a debilitating presence in their young adult life, particularly for Alice.
The film uses PJ Harvey’s rendition of the traditional folk song “An acre of land” which bookends the film. It was an inspired choice by Clio Barnard (The Arbor 2010 and The Selfish Giant 2013) as Harvey’s haunting voice and the lyrics complement the often grey, grim events portrayed in the film. This is far from a rose-tinted glimpse at rural life. It is a view of family life where possession of land and possession of the family lead into destructive worlds. The film does not entirely succeed but its virtues bury its limitations. It is well worth a visit.