Clio Barnard’s Dark River is a harrowing drama about the long-lasting impact of abuse. Ruth Wilson stars as Alice, a Yorkshire-raised woman who’s working as an itinerant sheep herder/shearer when she hears that her father (Sean Bean) has died. She goes home for the first time in many years to claim her right to the family farm, only to clash with her brother, Joe (Mark Stanley), who stayed on the farm with their father and thinks he has more right to the land than she does.
But, of course, Alice and Joe’s conflicted relationship is about so much more than who gets to decide whether a few lambs are sold. As Dark River unfolds, viewers realize that Alice fled home — and her father — for dark, disturbing reasons and that she and Joe have both been carrying the deepest possible anger and resentment toward each other for decades.
Dark River isn’t an easy movie to watch, from both a thematic standpoint and a practical one (unless you’re from Yorkshire, the characters’ thick accents can be challenging). But it’s worth it, thanks to the strong performances and skillful direction. Neither Alice nor Joe is used to expressing emotion — in fact, they’ve likely spent considerable energy doing everything they can NOT to feel things deeply, given their circumstances — so watching Wilson and Stanley interact is simultaneously wrenching and satisfying. And the scenes in which Alice flashes back to the unspeakable trauma of her teen years allow Wilson to convey moments of pure devastation.
Barnard is a director who strives for authenticity, and she succeeds beautifully with Dark River. The ancient farmhouse is believably ramshackle, and the characters are completely convincing as veteran Northern English farm folk. The story is also well served by Adriano Goldman’s cinematography, which captures the rugged Yorkshire landscape in a way that underlines the characters’ complicated feelings and relationships. Dark River may leave you reeling, but in the end, it’s a powerful, poignant story about a woman who refuses to let the men in her life define her any longer. — Betsy Bozdech
Team #MOTW’s comments:
Anne Brodie: Ruth Wilson couldn’t play a character further from Alison Bailey, the seductive conniving character she plays on The Affair. In Dark River, she’s a prickly itinerant sheep shearer who returns to her remote windswept Yorkshire Dales home on the death of her sexually abusive father. It’s the first time she’s been there in fifteen years; she’s reunited with her brother, an abusive, alcoholic sheep farmer and he’s not happy to see her. She tells him she is applying for tenancy of the farm as her father promised it to her; her brother is enraged but knows he doesn’t have what it takes to make it viable. Meanwhile the house brings memories flooding back of continuing rapes by her father and she sees him lurking in hallways; she asks her brother why he never protected her and he has no answer. He’s secretly plotting with the land agency to hand the farm over and take a payout and he feels guilty. Not only has he betrayed his sister once again, but it will cost the family their generations-long guardianship of the land, which is to be given over to developers. She’s in the dark and makes improvements, and he drinks himself into drunken, destructive rages. The grinding darkness and absence of joy, familial love, or relief from the constant dread would have been welcome, and in keeping with real life. This harrowing study of family and birthright and how fragile / strong they are is uncomfortable but writer director Clio Barnard has succeeded in using this unique natural setting to describe our most basic instincts.
Marilyn Ferdinand: In her sophomore feature film, British director Clio Barnard tackles a brooding tale of incest and familial strife on a Yorkshire sheep farm. Alice (Ruth Wilson), a self-imposed exile from her family farm, returns to claim her inheritance upon the death of the father (Sean Bean) whose sexually abusive treatment continues to haunt her. Her brother, Joe (Mark Stanley), consumed with guilt and anger, seems determined to destroy himself and the farm Alice wants to run. This is an unflinching story of elemental sorrow that may prove tough for many people to watch, but Barnard’s discreet, suggestive handling of the subject in a world unfamiliar to many could fascinate as much as it repels.
Nikki Baughan: It’s been four years since Clio Barnard’s previous feature, 2013’s Selfish Giant, but it’s been entirely worth the wait. Partly adapted from the novel by Rose Tremain, Dark River is a masterful piece of filmmaking, bringing together Barnard’s sensitive screenwriting, an incredible, indelible central performance from Ruth Wilson and a powerful, evocative sense of place. Wilson is outstanding as Alice, who returns to her isolated North England family farm after the death of her father (Sean Bean, seen in flashback). This is no easy journey; she is haunted by the spectre of her abusive dad and struggles to reconnect with her surly brother Joe (Mark Stanley), who is full of resentment about Alice leaving all those years ago. England’s Yorkshire countryside may appear at first as a green and pleasant land, but as captured by expert cinematographer Adriano Goldman, darkness lies just beneath the surface. This shadowy underbelly is both regional – Joe’s farm is by no means the only one in dire jeopardy; he is not the only one to lose his fight to hold on to traditional ways of life – and intimately personal. With memories of her father lying in wait at every turn, Alice is emotionally consumed by the past and her fight to take control of her life is referenced in her physical wrestlings with the landscape; we see her sheep shearing, muck raking and, in one tumultuous scene, almost consumed by the mud itself. For Alice, taming the land means overcoming her demons and, in the hands of Barnard and Wilson, her battle is ultimately as rewarding as it is devastating. Read essay.
Sandie Angulo Chen: Ruth Wilson is startlingly good in Dark River. She doesn’t say a whole lot, but she expresses so much pain with frightened looks and the ability to close in on herself. Ruth plays Alice Bell, an English sheep farmer who returns to her family’s Yorkshire farm for the first time in 15 years. Her father has died, and she’s ready to claim a right to the farm, particularly because her brother Joe (Mark Stanley) has let it go. But every crook and cranny of the farm triggers disturbing memories that explain Alice’s long absence. For a decade or so, nearly every acclaimed English actor had at most two degrees of separation from the eight-film Harry Potter series, and now we can say the same thing about HBO’s Game of Thrones. Dark River features three Game of Thrones actors: Stanley as Joe, Sean Bean as Alice and Joe’s father, and Joe Dempsie as a villager who’s interested in Alice. Despite the many men in writer-director Clio Barnard’s drama, the movie belongs to Wilson, who carries the heartbreaking story with a poignant intensity.
MaryAnn Johanson Ruth Wilson is absolutely extraordinary in Dark River: the quiet, anguished seething of her Alice is a devastating commentary in itself on the legacy that violent, abusive men — in this case, Alice’s father — leave in their wake. Writer-director Clio Barnard takes it further, though, to show, in a hushed voice that nevertheless screams, how familial violence impacts even those who only mutely witness it. This is a far more powerful film than its gentle demeanor would suggest, and one that wields its power like a stiletto.
Jennifer Merin Clio Barnard’s Dark River is a disturbing psychodrama about familial incest and abuse, and its indelible effects. Ruth Wilson stars as Alice, a 30-something itinerant sheep herder/shearer who returns to her family’s Yorkshire sheep farm to claim her share of the rundown place after her father’s death. Through skillful storytelling and subtle character development, Barnard reveals the reasons for the palpable enmity between Alice and her brother, Joe (Mark Stanley), who lived with Dad until his death. Watching Alice grapple with memories of her desperately wretched childhood is poignant and painful. Ruth Wilson’s spare, understated performance is devastating. Barnard’s style — following her filmmaking debut as a documentarian with The Arbor — is raw authenticity, and at times the characters’ thick Yorkshire accents can be difficult to understand — but much of Dark River‘s haunting tale is told visually and the film’s cinematography is superb.
Esther Iverem: Dark River proceeds, in bits and pieces, to depict the corrosive impact of incest on one woman and her family of sheep farmers in Yorkshire, England. Because of the dialect and accent, some key dialogue may be difficult to understand but the performances, story and stunning cinematography all work to contrast an interior world of horrible secrets with an exterior world that offers no answers.
Cate Marquis Clio Barnard gives us a glimpse into the hard life of sheep farmers in Yorkshire through the eyes of a woman who returns home to the sheep ranch where she grew up after a fifteen year absence. Alice (Ruth Wilson) works as a sheep shearer for hire, having left home young and never returned. When she learns of her father’s death, her strange reaction to the news immediately raises the question of abuse in our minds, a suspicion quickly confirmed by flashbacks of a young Alice (Esme Creed-Miles) experiencing sexual abuse at the hands of her father (Sean Bean). Read full review
Title: Dark River
Directors: Clio Barnard
Release Date: June 29, 2018
Running Time: 90 minutes
Language: English (strong Yorkshire dialect)
Screenwriter: Clio Barnard based on Rose Tremain’s novel
Distribution Company: FilmRise
AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Nikki Baughan, Anne Brodie, Betsy Bozdech, Marilyn Ferdinand, Pam Grady, Esther Iverem, MaryAnn Johanson, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Kristen Page-Kirby, Liz Whittemore, Susan Wloszczyna, Jeanne Wolf
Edited by Jennifer Merin