"Wilson and Stanley’s performances are utterly outstanding, each scene they have together is incredibly riveting and almost animalistic"
Written and directed by Clio Barnard (The Selfish Giant), Dark River is a story of resilience and family trauma, timely released in the whirlpool of #MeToo and #TimesUp.
The Yorkshire narrative follows Alice (Ruth Wilson), a skilled and nomadic sheep-shearer as she returns to her home village after her father’s death to claim the tenancy to the family farm she believes is rightfully hers. However, this is not her brother Joe (Mark Stanley)’s idea, the latter being left to take care of their sick father (Sean Bean) for part of the 15 years Alice was away.
Why Alice left and only came back after her father’s death becomes apparent through disturbing flashbacks of Bean and Esme Creed-Miles (who plays teen Alice). Disturbing for the abuse they suggest, but never show. Bean’s subtle yet ineffaceable performance and the cuts back to present time Alice, ie Wilson’s powerful emotional reactions to the memories, give a stronger effect than any reenactment may have done.
Parallel to this, the owners of the farm, who plan to transform the land into holiday cottages, endow Joe with the lease of the farm in spite of his drinking and his professional inferiority, in order to speed up their new enterprise.
Seeing a woman recover from past sexual abuse while being professionally undermined in spite of her superior skills is obviously topical, but still new and therefore most welcome as we all seem to be trying to change our industry and society to eradicate similar patriarchal plagues and finally co-exist as equals. But this tale isn’t a Hollywood epic, and though Alice survives and (we hope) finds solace, all does not end well, to say the least.
Sadly for the story, all does not end completely logically either as an unexpected accident towards the end, though it leads to a moving and important turning point, leaves a weird side effect, too weird to be fully accepted.
Wilson and Stanley’s performances are utterly outstanding, each scene they have together is incredibly riveting and almost animalistic (a favourite involved a large pair of shears). This is particularly impressive given the complexity of the siblings’ relationship, which apparently is darker in the Rose Tremain novel Dark River is loosely adapted from (Trespass).
Equally powerful are the Adriano Goldman’s beautiful cinematography and PJ Harvey & Harry Escott’s breathtakingly beautiful and haunting song ‘An Acre of Land’, lifting the film into fable folktale realm.