Dark River (2018)
Director: Clio Barnard
Screenwriter: Clio Barnard
Starring: Ruth Wilson, Mark Stanley, Sean Bean
Borrowing inspiration from an excerpt in the Ted Hughes poem of the same name that reads “any minute now a last kick, and the dark river will fold it away”, Clio Barnard’s follow up feature to her critically acclaimed 2013 release The Selfish Giant, itself inspired by Oscar Wilde’s short story of the same name, is as gritty and down to earth as you’d expect any British drama set at a Yorkshire farm to be, yet excels beyond this in its altogether more atmospheric and haunting presentation of grief, suffering and the legacy of trauma, choosing to focus on universal themes of womanhood, hunter versus hunted, righteousness versus evil and the way of nature versus god in a way comparable to the works of one of the silver screen’s greatest ever poets, Terrence Malick. Dark River is a picture of transcendence that operates as much in metaphor as in dialogue to achieve a rhythmic sensibility not unlike that of high end European cinema, presenting in the interim a narrative that is both fitting to the film’s metaphorical pursuits and moving on a more directly conscious level.
Barnard herself has described the film as being a “a folk tale about the exploitation of a woman’s body and the land”, an element of the feature that stands out as regards the presence of womanhood’s good in the face of poisoned masculinity and man’s horrendous history in its rule over the feminine. The narrative of the film follows abuse victim Alice upon her return to her home farm for the first time in 15 years in an attempt to restore the land and the buildings to their former glory following the passing of her father; actions that are opposed by her brother Jack who stuck with the farm through their parents’ death and is unappreciative of Alice’s sudden return. Alice must now, for the first time in over a decade and a half, confront her fears and the legacy of her trauma in order to rid herself of the ghosts of her past, a task her brother provides roadblocks for in what he believes to be protective manoeuvring brought about by an immense guilt that uncovers itself as the story unravels. In terms of Dark River’s iconography, Alice, herself traumatised by the actions of the most authoritative male presence in her life, seems at one with the land, the animals, nature and therefore god or good (at least as a concept), while her brother Joe, poisoned by his guilt and the weight of his own responsibility, is brutish, troublesome, destructive and unforgiving, himself seeming to represent man’s oppressive position within human history, providing a suitable opposite to his sister. In this respect, Alice is represented in her physicality by the farm and Joe by the decrepit house, and it’s tough for either of the characters to cross the thresholds into one another’s domains.
The brother’s evil, as dangerous as it is, is given a glimmer of hope in the picture’s early moments when he convinces his sister to not harvest the land’s crops in favour of saving the lives of millions of insects. It is a small hint as to the representation of evolving masculinity that the brother shall come to represent and hints at a caring nature that can get lost beneath his anger and guilt, but most importantly it offers his sister Alice a means through which to believe in him as a force for good once more, presenting to her a sibling she can entrust care of the land to; land that is of course representative of herself.
Barnard, herself of Yorkshire heritage, clearly has an eye for the beauty in the many miles of Yorkshire farmland, and uses the rolling hills and dense wildlife to populate the film with the beauty we come to associate with Alice’s more gracious journey, yet is not precious with it. In a particularly tense moment, Alice is engulfed by a thick fog that represents the worsening scenario at the farm but also the increasingly tough situation occurring within her own mind. The value of this particular moment comes from Barnard’s previously grandiose scenes of vast open space that, when used to juxtapose this grim, isolated scene, create a feeling of entrapment indicative of the protagonist’s increased level of threat and fear of abuse brought on by the hyper-masculine actions of her brother in the previous sequence. At all times, Barnard’s marrying of the land to the protagonist was strong but not distracting, operating beneath the clear narrative to provide a real depth worth sinking your teeth into, simultaneously bringing value to the setting, metaphor, narrative, and characters in as intelligent of a manner as is likely to be seen in cinemas this year, the ultimate pay off to the story coming as brother and sister unite in their position of defenders of the land (her body) to hunt a feral dog, overcoming the horrors of their history in the picture’s conclusive moments with a real sense of melodramatic justice that ends with Alice laying in the mud of the land as “the dark river folds it away”.
Both Ruth Wilson (Alice) and Mark Stanley (Joe) play their parts so astoundingly well that it’s easy to get lost in their characters’ lives, with their abilities to create believable siblings in amongst their portrayals of stress-ridden characters dealing with their demons in more typically feminine and masculine opposites – nervousness and aggression respectively – helping to uncover the redeemable qualities of the male character and presenting a woman of seemingly anxious outward presentation to be a determined and incredibly strong woman. This of course works to place Dark River in the contemporary landscape of gender politics, bringing attention to women’s issues in a literal sense regarding abuse and so on, but also providing commentary on the position of women within an evolving society that rightfully seems destined for a more equal marriage of power between genders; offering the piece an ‘it’s not fixed but it’s better than before’ stance as regards this underlying theme.
Finally, I hope it may be clear that Dark River is not a simple film with only a strong and believable narrative going for it in the way that many a gritty, northern, British drama may be categorised as having, but is instead a film that offers more in terms of themes, iconography, metaphorical meaning and so on. Because this is a picture so beautiful and brutal and poetic that it must be seen by anyone who wishes to support this art form we know and love, and Clio Barnard is a filmmaker we must cherish for such sensibilities.