After fifteen years away Alice (Wilson) returns to the farm where she was raised following the death of her father (Bean). Run by her drunk brother Joe (Stanley) the farm has fallen into disrepair and pressure is on to either smarten up or sell. Both sister and brother apply for tenancy, she wanting to sell, as the place holds too many bad memories, and he wants to make a go of it, as it’s all he has…
In her first film since 2013’s grim but touching The Selfish Giant, writer-director Clio Barnard stays up north, moving the action from a rundown estate to a neglected farm. The central idea remains the same: there’s an impending tragedy in the offing and there’s nothing no one can do about it.
Barnard beautifully teases out the backstory: Alice was abused by her father and this is a source of resentment between the siblings: Alice wanted Joe to help and Joe is burdened by guilt that he didn’t. Barnard also wonderfully depicts the lived-in environment of the farm and the house, with its broken fences and balding carpets on the stairs. Ugly settings coupled with unpleasant goings on seems to be her MO. And yet her stories always beat with a pounding heart.
And this is where Dark River comes alive. Barnard’s greatest skill here is illustrating not only the differences between Alice and Joe and how time apart has changed them, but also the subtle similarities they still boast. At one point Alice wants to set rat traps in the barn until Joe points out that there are owls nested there; she is prepared to do what has to be done but the moment hints of a love of wildlife they once shared in their youth. Another scenario sees a heated argument over what to do with a field: she wants to use it for silage while he points out that that will kill the wildlife present. He represents the past and she the future.
Fresh from her star-making turn in The Affair, Ruth Wilson delivers her finest performance to date. She successfully manages to get across Alice’s capability and strength while also showcasing her guarded vulnerability. She’s backed up by an impressive Stanley, a gruff and lost man clinging on to what he can even as it slips through his fingers. There isn’t a moment between them that doesn’t ring true.