Of a piece thematically with her two previous features, documentary The Arbor and drama The Selfish Giant, Clio Barnard’s latest, Dark River, once again sketches a moving, North of England-set portrait of marginalized working-class cultures and the resilience of damaged children. Featuring a more “name” cast than Barnard’s earlier works, this pivots around the protean Ruth Wilson (TV’s Luther, The Affair) as a woman trying to run the family farm after her father’s death and confronting her own traumatized past in the process.
The dominant note is the warm but quotidian realism of Giant rather than the experimental daring of Arbor, yet Dark River yields a perceptive study of family dynamics, unfolding in a changing landscape as prey to economic forces and demographic shifts as any urban center. Wilson’s name, along with that of Sean Bean and at least two other Game of Thrones veterans, may help raise River’s profile a few notches, but it’s unlikely to harvest much more than usual for British fare of its type.
Alice Bell (Wilson) lives the life of modern agricultural gypsy, moving from farm to farm in her Land Rover to shear sheep on temporary contracts. Highly competent and respected by her employers and peers, Alice seemingly keeps at bay the pain of remembering the childhood sexual abuse inflicted by her father Richard (Bean) by staying perpetually in motion and concentrating on her work. But when she hears that Richard has finally died after a long illness, she returns to the Yorkshire farm where she grew up to reclaim the lease on the land, determined to take what Richard once promised her, perhaps as some kind of compensation.
The hitch is that her elder brother Joe (Mark Stanley, excellent) is still living on the farm and half-heartedly attending to its flock of sheep, in between shifts as a truck driver. Joe looked after Richard up until his death and feels some stifled resentment that Alice thinks she can just waltz back in after a 15-year absence and start taking over the place. For her part, Alice is willing to share the lease and work the farm in collaboration with Joe. But they have different ideas about how to run things, from whether the sheep should be dipped or sprayed (for parasites and wool preservation) or if a nearby field should be used for silage (Alice’s choice) or left fallow so that the plants and animals decimated by intensive farming practices can be left to regenerate (Joe’s preference).
As it happens, these debates between the siblings look likely to be moot since the company that actually owns all the Bell family’s acres wants to develop the property for holiday cottages and tourism instead of farming, although they can’t actually say that outright. This means that even though Alice is manifestly the more capable and competent farmer, the company’s representatives approach Joe with the offer of a backhander and the lease in his name, for at least a little while longer, if he promises to evict his sister.
Issues involving money and property are not the only things at stake here. Barnard’s elliptical script refrains from spelling things out too baldly in words, but it’s clear from the flashbacks (which feature Esme Creed-Miles as the young Alice and Aiden McCullough as young Joe) that Alice was regularly abused by Richard when she was a child, perhaps after Alice and Joe’s mother died or left. Apparently, Joe knew about the abuse, and not only did he fail to stop it, he actually helped his father to control Alice and keep her from seeing potential boyfriend David (Joe Dempsie, another Thrones alum). Those who read Rose Tremain’s novel Trespass, on which this is very loosely based, will also be aware that there’s an even darker history between the two siblings in Tremain’s version of the story.
One can’t help wondering whether at one point, during development perhaps, there were scenes that took the story in this creepier direction. Meanwhile, an end credit lists actor Una McNulty in the role of Susan Bell, presumably Alice and Joe’s mother, and the character features in the dialogue, she is never met onscreen nor is her absence ever explained, which suggests things may have been shifted around somewhat between shooting and the final cut. Indeed, the film sometimes feels particularly withholding and suggestive when it comes to plot, although there’s enough expression in the faces of the actors, especially Wilson and Stanley, to fill in the emotional gaps.
Bean himself barely has more than a line or two, but even in the very few moments he appears onscreen — climbing into bed with his daughter, or looking with glowering and guilt at her from across a room — he makes an indelible impression. Barnard underscores this by suggesting that he’s still around, like a memory or a ghost, interacting through magic of eyeline match cuts with the grown Alice played by Wilson rather than the child Alice played by Creed-Miles. (Who, incidentally, is both terrifically cast to play the young Wilson and yet also looks a lot like her real-life mother, the superb British actor Samantha Morton.) Ultimately, though, this is Wilson’s film and she owns it with a performance rich in psychological subtlety that simultaneously projects ferocity and vulnerability. Plus, she gets to show off her sheep-shearing and dog whistling chops, and how many actors can claim the same?
Production companies: A Film4, Screen Yorkshire, BFI presentation, in association with the Wellcome Trust, of a Moonspun Films/Left Bank Pictures production
Cast: Ruth Wilson, Mark Stanley, Shane Attwooll, Dean Andrews, Mike Noble, Esme Creed-Miles, Aiden McCullough, Joe Dempsie, Sean Bean
Director/screenwriter: Clio Barnard, based on the novel ‘Trespass’ by Rose Tremain
Producers: Tracy O’Riordan
Executive producers: Lila V. Rawlings, Suzanne Mackie, Andy Harries, Lizzie Francke, Rose Garnett, Polly Stokes, Hugo Heppell, Meroe Candy
Director of photography: Adriano Goldman
Production designer: Helen Scott
Costume designer: Matthew Price
Editors: Nick Fenton, Luke Dunkley
Music: Harry Escott
Casting: Amy Hubbard
No rating, 89 minutes