When I reviewed her directorial debut, The Arbor, I declared that Clio Barnard was a British director to keep your eye on. Back in 2013 her follow up The Selfish Giant further demonstrated her ambition, capability and versatility. Barnard’s third feature is a rural British drama centred around unspoken memories of trauma which continues to prove all of the above. Following the death of her father, Alice returns to the family farm, fifteen years later. The house and land is filled with ghosts for Alice as she confronts the brother she left behind and the abuse that forced her to flee. Both Alice and her brother feel devoted to the farm but are violently divided by anger, guilt and betrayal. The relentless and unforgiving behaviour of their rural surroundings reflects the trauma Alice still lives with. The vast Yorkshire countryside is very much the third character in Dark River – a tense, emotionally ripe exploration of siblings painfully and unexpectedly reunited. Ruth Wilson’s Alice is a woman betrayed by those closest to her – now an isolated and hardened individual. Wilson’s earnest performance is matched by a fervent turn from Mark Stanley as Joe – a man riddled with resentment and regret. Whilst his sister is gently guarded, Joe is openly wounded, damaged and furious. Alice’s pragmatic attitude clashes with her brother’s alcohol-fuelled devastation. Their dilapidated family home, once a place of joy and refuge, becomes their claustrophobic prison.
Thanks largely to the recent release of Francis Lee’s God’s Own Country, there is now a prominent trend of turbulent natural landscapes seeping into British cinema, rich in its symbolism, beauty and fury. Dark River uses its surroundings just as intensely. Barnard is no stranger to incorporating this into her work – it was there in the tragedy and sorrow of The Selfish Giant half a decade ago. The film’s sound design is particularly impeccable, quiet, deep rumblings capturing the turmoil at the film’s heart. Very much a ghost story, Dark River is not a horror film but uses all the grace of this genre’s greats to encompass the lasting horrors of childhood abuse and the loss of innocence. Words between characters are often few and far between and it is the eyes that tell us the most about Joe and Alice’s years together and years apart. Past and present are eloquently weaved together silently as truths from the past rear their ugly head. There seems to be great trust between Wilson and Barnard, who both show great conviction and subtlety. Barnard was right to cast Wilson and to let her run with the material. Equally, Wilson’s performance is elevated by the film, its editing and delicate, determined direction. Everything is confidently brought together by Adriano Goldman’s understated cinematography. Dark River doesn’t quite have the originality of The Arbor or the powerful beating heart of The Selfish Giant but it remains another bold and captivating outing for Barnard, fast becoming one of our most consistent British filmmakers and by far one my favourite cinematic storytellers.
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