★★★★ DARK RIVER Family secrets are dredged up in the Yorkshire moors
Country darkness falls quickly when Alice (Ruth Wilson) goes back to the farm. She stops before entering to gratefully absorb the Yorkshire countryside’s sunny beauty. But after that, Clio Barnard’s third film deals mostly in mud, rain, silence and pain, as memories of Alice’s recently dead dad (Sean Bean) stalk her through every farmhouse room, his sexual abuse plainly implied. Brother Joe (Mark Stanley, pictured below with Wilson) stayed behind when she escaped for 15 years, helping to keep the farm staggering on. Alice’s desire to take over the tenancy their dad promised her – guilty blood money she grabs as a legacy – leaves the siblings at war, and this rotten house of secrets ready to fall.
In Britain’s small but crucial new wave of realist rural films, it’s remarkable how much Dark River rhymes with last year’s The Levelling. Both involve daughters returning to failing farms where their fathers were weighed down with guilt. They’re almost silent films at times, in settings which, as Alec Secereanu’s itinerant worker observes in God’s Own Country, are “beautiful, but lonely”.Still, it’s the social context in which Alice’s trauma plays out which distinguishes Dark River, and Ruth Wilson’s performance. Though Alice is used to the physical rigours of sheep farming, being a rare female farmer in an environment where she was abused leaves her doubly braced for assault. A quick post-pub shag with a man she once fancied and her physical defence by an older male friend are rare moments of relief from professional insults, and Joe’s hair-trigger temper. The farm’s corporate freeholders, tempting the hopelessly over-his-head Joe to take on the tenancy and sell up, meanwhile suggest the wider battle which small tenant farmers who love their land have to endure.
This is Barnard’s third exploration of her native Yorkshire. It’s her furthest venture yet from the Bradford council estate edgeland of her semi-documentary investigation of playwright Andrea Dunbar, The Arbor, and as Alice wanders away from the farm to dip in a river, and later seems to sink into the land, ancient ceremonies and sacrifices are suggested. A folk song sung by fellow occasional sheep-farmer PJ Harvey adds to these hints of pre-industrial thoughts and deeds.Those climactic scenes also lurch into melodrama after the earlier simmering dread. They at least make clear that, just as Barnard’s The Selfish Giant was a platonic love story between two otherwise friendless young boys, so Dark River is about the love between sister and brother, brutalised by their father but finally redeemed.
For a former conceptual artist and documentarian, Barnard is strong on characterisation and narrative, as well as the social pressures and landscapes which shape lives. Like her previous films, Dark River also sees her taking the long view of a life. Alice’s abuse remains only as flashback shards breaking through from the past. Barnard is more concerned with this haunting’s survival and banishment.