Directed by: Clio Barnard
Cast: Ruth Wilson, Mark Stanley, Sean Bean, Dean Andrews
Following this year’s ‘Lean On Pete‘, ‘God’s Own Country‘ and ‘The Levelling‘, the withering farmlands are a dramatic staple of 2018’s arthouse cinema. Clio Bernard’s ‘Dark River’ is a standout among this particular niche.
Inspired by Rose Tremain’s novel ‘Trespass’, Ruth Wilson’s Alice returns to her home village for the first time in 15 years after the death of her father, Richard (Sean Bean). The slow and enrapturing photography introduces the vast and unruled lands, underscored by the pounding footsteps of a nearby stampede. Alice wanders the once familiar home, looking hesitantly into darkly lit rooms that spark haunting memories of her father. Bernard’s patience will never let up, allowing the creeping darkness of the woods nearby to infect whatever future the farm may have had.
Ruth Wilson (Alice), once paired with co-star Mark Stanley (Joe), reacquaint themselves with the convincing power of a brother-sister bond that hasn’t been shared for 15 years. They are both excellent performances, using words for spare parts that focus more on the traditional emotional truth often found in the eyes and staging of actors (props to Bernard for distinct direction). Wilson in particular marks ‘Dark River’ as a major work within her filmography, matching the enveloping grief of Laura Dern in Fox’s ‘The Tale’ from earlier this year.
As their rural life is threatened by a housing agent upon Alice’s return, the past begins to overlap their future. Joe is unable to properly hold up the farm in grief of his father, but Alice insists on moving forward. Their conflict boils until not even the farmlands are able to quantify their history. The final third is the kind of bold move that will make it or break it for certain audiences. In this particular case, Bernard takes the typical Sundance fare of underlings returning home in light of a guardians death and transforming it into a disturbing resolution against abuse.
‘Lean On Pete’, ‘God’s Own Country’ and ‘The Levelling’ may be good in their own right, but Bernard is out for blood just as much as her main character Alice is. Which is why the final moments of ‘Dark River’ are as dark as the film suggests. Wilson and Stanley struggle to make eye contact, but their body language says it all: their commitment to each other is not bound by their history or land, so what does the length of the river matter if it’s already dark.