Clio Barnard's follow-up to 2013's brilliant The Selfish Giant is another Yorkshire-set drama but a wholly different beast. She may be wielding a slightly larger budget than she is used to, but her focus remains on the messy complexity of human beings whilst grounding her characters and their story in the unforgiving landscape.
Alice (Ruth Wilson) returns home after 15 years following the death of her father (Sean Bean). Her brother, Joe (Mark Stanley), resents her absence but resists her attempts to change the way their family farm is run. They wrestle for tenancy of the farm, which now harbours painful memories for Alice.
Dark River is low on plot but high on character. Alice is determined to prove herself and is clearly more capable and committed than Joe in the farm's day-to-day management. But she is visibly afraid of her brother and the memories that linger in the walls – Wilson's body is physically contorted in a near-constant state of unease. Her face is a landscape of pain, but also of strength and determination. Stanley, too, is completely convincing as Joe, particularly in the scenes in which he hurls himself around the farm in a blind rage. In the hands of a less-skilled actor, these moments would seem melodramatic, but Stanley makes us completely believe in him.
Barnard was inspired by Rose Tremain's novel, Trespass. Indeed, the themes of intrusion and trespassing run like a seam throughout the film, not least in Alice's father's invasion of her privacy as a girl. This is very much a ghost story about characters attempting to exorcise the demons of the past. Barnard and cinematographer Adriano Goldman shoot the Yorkshire moors like a gothic horror. Fog hangs over the landscape like a spectre and the rain pours almost unrelentingly. The sense of place is so strong that we can almost feel the texture of the mud.
Personally, I didn't need the final scene which wraps up the story a little too neatly, and the third act arguably betrays the psychological excavation that has come before in favour of thrills. But Dark River is a stunning piece of work from an important voice in British cinema.
Words by Logan Jones
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