Dark River (London Film Festival 2017)

I chose Clio Barnard's new film because I loved The Arbor (2010), her innovative documentary about Bradford playwright Andrea Dunbar. I'm not crazy about British social-realist cinema but The Arbor was imaginative and formally inventive. I have also heard great things about The Selfish Giant (which I'm yet to see).

Dark River is set in the North Yorkshire countryside on a neglected tenant farm over which two siblings compete following their father's death. I grew up in Yorkshire (not in the countryside but close to it) and I've worked on farms, and I can confirm that the gut-clenching, taciturn unhappiness on display throughout most of Dark River is right on the miserable money.

The siblings in question are Alice (a superb Ruth Wilson) and Joe (Mark Stanley) whose relationship is thrown into turmoil by the death of their father. The father is played by Sean Bean, naturally. Sean Bean has become Yorkshire in many ways. Good grief, when I have flashbacks to my childhood in Huddersfield, Sean Bean now features in them.

The film opens with Alice in some kind of bucolic semi-paradise where she learns of her father's death. She has long since fled home (because, we eventually learn through several disturbing flashbacks, of her sexually abusive father) to work as a peripatetic sheep shearer. She decides to go home because, she says, her father promised the farm to her.

Now this promise may have been real; it may have been offered out of guilt; it may be imagined because of anger and the need for some kind of restitution: we're never quite told. The uncertainty leads to conflict with her brother Joe who still lives on the farm but who has allowed it to fall into disrepair and financial peril while he looked after their father and worked extra hours as a haulage driver. They both decide to claim rightful tenancy and a couple of bureaucrats and speculators get in their way, adding to the tension and leading to the inevitably violent denouement.

There is much millstone-gritting of teeth and inarticulate shouting matches in the wuthering wind and driving rain of a very cinematic Yorkshire: the dark lowering green beauty that you know is waiting to kill you, skin you, and eat you from a dented metal plate, with a spoon, if given the chance.

Introducing the film, the producers spoke of Ruth Wilson's extraordinary commitment to learning proper farming skills and actually shearing live sheep, which is a very demanding and skilled process. They weren't wrong and both Stanley and Wilson are utterly convincing in their roles; Wilson in many ways resembles Ellen Ripley if Ripley had gone into farming rather than intergalactic trade. I love good animal performances in film and there are some excellent sheep and dogs at work in this one. 

Throughout, the two leads are shadowed by their younger selves played in flashback (with little if any dialogue) by Esme Creed-Miles and Aiden McCullough. In many ways, their story is the central one and through it we glimpse the shot of redemption that the film offers in the final scene, indeed the final shot.

Dark River is loosely adapted from the Rose Tremain novel Trespass and the title introduces a grand watery metaphor that I thought seemed a little out of place, given the green, land-locked, mostly dry (except for the rain) setting. But on a second viewing I may not feel the same.

Despite the hint of redemption and purpose at the end of the film, and the dim glint of resolution, I was left wanting to tell Alice not to go home, not to revisit the traumas of the past but to stay travelling the world, shears in hand, visiting New Zealand and Norway, in brighter settings, with loving companions. But then I haven't lived through her character's experiences.

Maybe she'll get back out there in any case. 

Next up: 78/52