An uncomfortable slice of kitchen-sink realism to offset the big-name fatigue of awards season, Dark River continues the recent British filmmaking tradition of making modern-day agricultural life seem medievally bleak.
After her dad’s death, nomadic Alice (Ruth Wilson) makes a homecoming to her family farm in North Yorkshire to confront her troubled brother Joe (Mark Stanley) over the rights to the now run-down property. Underpinning the sibling’s struggle is a secret history of sexual abuse from the recently deceased father (Sean Bean), whose legacy lingers heavy over Alice as she struggles with her inner conflict of trauma and grief.
Handsomely shot, Clio Barnard paints the dales as both brutal and beautiful – a twisted pastoral accoutrement to compliment the dark subject matter. Collapsed stone walls and rainy hillsides frame the uncertainty of the drama, a fitting accompaniment to the theme of impermanence.
While the cinematography is accomplished, the same cannot be said in regard to narrative. Dark River meanders as tensions between Alice and Joe escalate, and the pacing is methodical at best and tiring otherwise. Events unfold fairly slowly, occasionally explosively and intrusively so – the harsh finale, in particular, seems uniquely off-key when placed alongside the understated character driven drama and the subtlety of the overall tone.+
Dark River’s imbalances may show, but its greatest strengths are Ruth Wilson and Mark Stanley, who hold the film together even when the story arc falters. Their individual psychological damage is sensitively handed through thoughtful performances. Wilson, above all, constructs a nuanced and credible portrait of Alice, finding a balance amidst the thunder of the character’s quarrelling emotions. Ruth Wilson raises a survivor out of the wreckage made of her life, her psychological struggle running parallel to her physical efforts to renovate the farm. It’s a compelling performance, without which the film would fare badly. Overall, Dark River is a sum of all of its parts; a mixed bag of compelling performances, haunting visuals and uneven storytelling.