Dark River presents an unflinching gaze at something unpalatable: the way a traumatised person can be fiercely attached to the very thing that harms them.
When her father (Sean Bean) dies, Alice (Ruth Wilson), an itinerant farm worker and sheep shearer, returns home. Home is a failing, disintegrating, insalubrious farm, somewhere beautiful and remote, in North Yorkshire. Alice’s brother Joe (Mark Stanley) lives there, surviving somehow among near ruins. He is still young, but broken, ailing, angry.
His sister blames him for the poor state of the farm. This is the first sign that something between them is very wrong, and that this is related to their history. They have not seen each other in fifteen years, yet any residual affection or kindness seems absent. Both seem wildly wounded animals, untrusting.
There is something between the siblings, or rather, someone: their dead father. A father who did something to one child, which was partly misunderstood by the other. A father who made a terrible promise, to favour one child, the one who fled, and not the other, who stayed behind and cared for him. And rather than let go, both children find themselves fighting for a vanishing asset, the farm, which is merely leased and about to be repossessed.
Clio Barnard reveals the unremitting darkness of these young people’s lives, a darkness the beautiful landscapes and vast skies around them cannot dispel. The harsh economic reality of farming is revealed, as is the sheer extent of expertise needed to run the farm.
Both siblings are impressive in their knowledge of farming, and also in their technical understanding of the financial side of their enterprise. After all, farming is business, not romance. Yet, there is a visceral attachment there, which comes both from their love of the land, which gives meaning to their existence, and also from trauma. There is something seared in their minds. Alice sleeps in an outbuilding, a shack, and not her childhood bedroom in the farmhouse.
Her sense of avoidance is extreme. Sometimes she hallucinates, has flashbacks, loses track of time. But it would be a mistake to think she is the only one affected.
‘Dark River’ was made with the assistance of trauma specialists, and a grant from the Wellcome Institute. Great care was taken in the portrayal of trauma, a more common affliction than is generally acknowledged.
The actors’ performances are in the main convincing, though the confrontations between the siblings occasionally sound flat. Small details become disproportionately puzzling – Alice is too consistently well made-up, and her skin tone and texture are not compatible with that of a sheep farmer exposed to the elements for decades – sunscreen or no sunscreen. Despite her excellent performance, one remains conscious that she is an actor. The realism stops at her appearance.
In the last few months, two other rural dramas were released, Hope Dickson Leach’s grim family story ‘The Levelling’, and the surprise romantic hit of the year, Francis Lee’s ‘God’s Own Country’. In all these three films, farming life is de-romanticised while still being an object of love, somehow.
A beautifully wistful track by P.J. Harvey and Harry Escott, a version of ‘An Acre of Land’, sets the tone of the story. How will the siblings break out of their impasse, and save each other?
Director: Clio Barnard
Screenplay: Clio Barnard; adapted from the novel ‘Trespass’ by Rose Tremain
Cinematography: Adriano Goldman
Music: Harry Escott
Cast: Ruth Wilson, Mark Stanley, Sean Bean, Esmeralda Creed-Miles
Originally published on MyFilmClub, February 2018