Dark River




Rural Yorkshire remains a great setting for drama but here a story is told in a way that raises doubts.

Dark River

Ruth Wilson


Clio Barnard rightly drew attention with her intensely original first feature, The Arbor (2010), while her follow-up, The Sleeping Giant (2013), structurally a more conventional work, proved that her camera technique was indeed that of a master. Even though Dark River, her third feature, strikes me overall as a disappointing piece, it contains strong evidence of her qualities yet again. There is an assurance to much of the filmmaking that is striking, while the rural Yorkshire location is rendered part and parcel of the work's character and is quite admirably photographed in colour by Adriano Goldman. There is also a welcome discretion in the use of music, yet with Harry Escott as composer it extends effectively to a song in folk ballad style, 'An Acre of Land', which, sung by PJ Harvey, is heard early on and also over the end credits.


With so much of quality involved, it is with regret that I have to record the fact that for me at least the story (written by Barnard herself but inspired by Rose Tremain's novel Trespass) did not work. It begins most naturalistically with Alice (Ruth Wilson) returning home after fifteen years consequent on the death of her father. The latter's farm has been managed by her brother, Joe (Mark Stanley), but has become run down. Given her own experience tending sheep, Alice wants to make it flourish again by becoming involved herself. However, Joe looks set to be a difficult partner being at odds with his sister on many levels including resentment that she has stayed away leaving him to look after their father and, in effect, has deprived him of the chance to build an independent life of his own.


This aspect of Dark River works splendidly and is not disadvantaged by comparisons with other recent rural dramas such as The Levelling and God's Own Country. However, the troubled relationship between the siblings has grown out of past events, the nature of which is only gradually disclosed. Throughout its length, Dark River refers back to what had happened through a mixture of inserts that incorporates flashbacks, memory shots and hallucinations conjured up by Alice. This approach is far too self-conscious not to clash with the realistic tone established at the start. As the film progresses this intercutting of past and present becomes more confusing than revealing and, when the drama of the past and the drama of the present actually meld together, a sense of melodrama overwhelms the naturalism that had been so effective. It's a great shame because Barnard's skills extend to knowing exactly how to get the best out of her leading actress - Ruth Wilson is truly memorable. Whether you regard Dark River as a success or as a comparative failure will depend on your attitude to its structure and tone, but there is much here to admire whatever your verdict.




Cast: Ruth Wilson, Mark Stanley,  Shane Attwooll, Dean Andrews, Mike Noble, Esmé Creed-Miles, Aiden McCullough, Joe Dempsie, William Travis, Sean Bean.


Dir Clio Barnard, Pro Tracy O'Riordan, Screenplay Clio Barnard, from the novel Trespass by Rose Tremain and story development by Lila V. Rawlings, Ph Adriano Goldman, Pro Des Helen Scott, Ed Nick Fenton and Luke Dunkley, Music Harry Escott, Costumes Matthew Price.


Moonspun Films/Left Bank Pictures/Film4/Screen Yorkshire/BFI-Arrow Films.
90 mins. UK. 2017. Rel: 23 February 2018. Cert. 15.