Dark River (15) | Close-Up Film Review

Dir. Clio Barnard, UK, 2017, 90 mins

Cast:  Ruth Wilson, Mark Stanley, Sean Bean

Review by Carol Allen

Following on from the award gathering success of the downbeat “God’s Own Country”, along comes another dour British social realism drama, this time set in the Yorkshire sheep farming world.  The story this time deals with the effects of sexual abuse with a subsidiary theme about the trials of being a tenant farmer with no land rights. 

After the death of her father, Alice (Ruth Wilson), who has been travelling Europe as a freelance sheep shearer, returns to the family farm, where her brother Joe (Mark Stanley) has been nursing father and letting the farm go to rack and ruin under the strain of the situation.   Alice wants to take over the tenancy and restore the farm with Joe’s help, but her brother resents her plans.  They get locked into a bitter conflict, fuelled by Alice’s traumatic memories of the past, in which she was sexually abused by her father and betrayed by her brother.

We learn this through the initially somewhat confusing and obscure flashbacks, in which Sean Bean makes a few fleeting appearances as the father when younger.  The conflict between brother and sister is escalated when Alice applies to take over the tenancy and is rejected, because the owners of the property want to buy Joe out and redevelop the site.

Director/writer Clio Barnard put a lot of effort into researching the effects of sexual abuse for this film – one of the organisations credited is the Wellcome Trust.  Wilson’s fine performance certainly indicates that Alice is a very damaged woman.  But evne so the film fails to add much to our understanding of the effects of such trauma.

The dialogue is also often difficult to follow due to the authenticity of the Yorkshire accents employed by the actors, particularly Stanley, whose character is any case one whose inarticulate nature makes it difficult for him to voice his feelings.

The cold beauty of the often rain drenched landscape is effectively filmed but much of the action is shot in the sort of murky lighting, which makes it difficult to make out what is happening. This is particularly so with the melodramatic climax to the story, which is almost impossible to follow.

This film too has gathered a handful of awards but the depressing nature of the story and its setting – life on a Yorkshire sheep farm is a hard and stony road as portrayed here – make this more a film for critics and festival audiences rather than one that is going to pack ‘em in at your local multiplex.