(Content warning: sexual abuse)
There is a discernible style of British filmmaking which involves a masterful crafting of an environment which appears at once innocuous and hostile. Clio Barnard’s Dark River uses the unbounded northern countryside to create a formidable sense of space, and protagonist Alice (Ruth Wilson) interacts with this in ways that prompt meditations on the place of the physical body in nature, particularly its fluctuant vulnerability. The slippage in the control she holds over her immediate surroundings helps expose the psychological turmoil and increasing destabilisation she experiences while re-immersing herself in a space which represents, to her, a period of profoundly affecting trauma.
In Dark River, a young woman, Alice, returns to her family’s farm, after 15 years away, in the wake of the death of her father. Tensions arise between she and her brother, Joe (Mark Stanley), as the individual claim to the farm’s tenancy must be decided between them. As memories of times past resurface, the two become embroiled in their own unresolved conflict, trapped also by the constraints of their hardship in the undervaluation of their agricultural living.
Although I did not wish to inflate the significance of the implied narrative of parental sexual abuse while watching the film, due to the uncomfortable commonality of haphazardly rendered assault stories on-screen (as a recent example, see 2017’s Wind River – similar in title but largely dissimilar in content – which was dehumanising, almost tasteless, in its explicitness), but the delicate implicitness Barnard employs in unfolding Alice’s background is exemplar; she communicates a weightier sense of dread and discomfort through the unsaid and unseen, and treads sensitively around this critical subject through symbolic means.
There are some incredibly beautiful shots in the film (a brief glimpse of the most perfect blue-toned twilight silhouette struck me immediately), particularly close-ups of the faces and hands of Alice and Joe. Both Wilson and Stanley give deeply forceful performances, and the high level of physical communication between the two when interacting is impressive. The surges of emotion, erupting suddenly in, to borrow from filmmaker Andrew Kötting (a friend of Barnard and interviewer at post-screening Q&A session, hosted by CINECITY through Duke’s at Komedia), a ‘visceral’ manner, with Stanley’s explosive lapses in control, over the internal, feeling exhaustingly raw.
Dark River has a crucial tactility which gives gravity to the sense of corporeality the film has to offer; the physicality of the agricultural work, and the implied physicality of abuse, directs attention towards primal relationships between mind and body, which is cleverly explored by Barnard in the way she picks out and spotlights involuntary motions.
The film’s vast rural landscape is a corrupted idyll, framed in a state of murkiness (and, in places, decay) reflecting the ravaging human conflict set against it. The score is wonderfully understated, with Escott electing to use a kind of minimalistic drone to convey a lasting and extensive sense of dread and unease.
I felt that the emotional dynamism which Wilson and Stanley had established so well throughout the film was slightly wasted on its resolution; what had been a subtle enquiry into the magnitude of the effects of domestic hardship turned into the everyman’s tale of ‘caution in the countryside’ as a consequence of the inclusion of one relatively implausible moment in the narrative. However, speaking in general terms, the film was incredibly gripping throughout, moving in places, and will surely leave a lasting impression on its audience, especially when seen in a well-facilitated cinema.
Dark River is due to be released in cinemas across the UK on 23rd February 2018.
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Image Credit: Tim Barclay