Clio Barnard announced herself as a major voice in British cinema with The Arbor (2010) — a raw, distinctive hybrid about the life of playwright Andrea Dunbar. Barnard used the technique of having actors lip-synch the words of significant figures from the late Dunbar’s life, interspersed with open-air performances of scenes from Dunbar’s work on the Bradford housing estate where she grew up. The Arbor articulated Barnard’s concern for the marginalised — whether socially, geographically, economically or psychologically. Next was The Selfish Giant (2013), a socially relevant yet emotionally potent work which drew comparisons to Ken Loach in its depiction of lives blighted by poverty struggling to find beauty where they can. The Selfish Giant offers a condemnation of the Darwinian logic which underpins the neoliberal order without succumbing to didacticism or righteous fury.
Barnard’s work is grounded in compassion without condescension; it is bare-bones filmmaking imbued with its own visual poetry, never stooping to the romanticised or voyeuristic in its depiction of those who must pick through the scraps of consumer society. Barnard seeks to find an ennobling force in a heartless landscape. Though she has moved away from an urban setting with her latest work, Dark River retains many of Barnard’s thematic concerns: it finds characters grappling with forces beyond their control, struggling to reconcile past with present, doing battle with the exigencies of circumstance.
Alice (Ruth Wilson) has travelled the world as an itinerant sheep shearer; but she must return home for the first time in 15 years upon the death of her father (Sean Bean). The family farm has fallen into a state of chronic disrepair under the guidance of her brother, Joe (Mark Stanley), who Alice left behind to take care of their father. As Alice becomes embroiled in a battle for tenancy with Joe, she must confront the weight of the past she fled. In its depiction of a dying way of life, Dark River calls to mind Francis Lee’s God’s Own Country (2017); Joe’s inheritance is perpetual struggle, isolation and fending off property developers.
While it is undoubtedly grounded in a realist tendency, Dark River also has a quality which gives it a gothic charge. Barnard is able to lend these landscapes a forbidding beauty, thanks in large part to Adriano Goldman’s photography, which is reminiscent of Robbie Ryan’s work on Wuthering Heights (2011) in its blending of the immense with the immediate. It is a milieu rife with metaphor: from the farmhouse with its attendant ghosts, to the brooding moors whose majesty masks the grim practicalities of quotidian duty. It is a terrain in which the infliction of violence figures on multiple fronts — familial, industrial, personal.
The duality of personal violence is played to perfection by Wilson and Stanley. Wilson’s Alice struggles to present a stolid surface which conceals the tumult beneath, while Stanley’s Joe is the embodiment of that tumult projected outwards. Both fulfil their roles to perfection: Stanley delivers a stirring evocation of pride and powerlessness, while Wilson methodically dredges the depths of Alice’s pain and penitence to stunning effect. In their different ways, they both excel in drawing out their character’s vulnerability. There is between Wilson and Stanley a perpetual sense of the unspoken, of a shared set of scars neither can fully acknowledge. So much revelation occurs in the process of other actions, the act of labour freeing them for emotional frankness. Bean’s patriarch functions as a structuring absence; his legacy can be seen in the actions of his children; his memory inflects every scene.
Dark River excels in the areas where Barnard has already proven herself adept: she draws stellar performances from her cast across the board, and creates a vibrant naturalism without sacrificing tone or style. But Dark River is not an unqualified success. The relationship between Alice and David (Joe Dempsie), an old flame from Alice’s youth, feels underdeveloped, failing to find its place alongside the more substantial plot strands. Tasked with a work which requires a more systematic approach to narrative, Barnard falls slightly short when it comes to balancing all the elements at play. Yet for all its minor shortcomings, enough of Dark River works for it to qualify as a successful progression from The Selfish Giant. Dark River only serves to enhance Barnard’s standing as a force for empathy.
D.M. Palmer (@MrDMPalmer) is a writer based in Sheffield, UK. He has contributed to sites like HeyUGuys, The Shiznit, Sabotage Times, Roobla, Column F, The State of the Arts and Film Inquiry. He has a propensity to wax lyrical about Film Noir on the slightest provocation, which makes him a hit at parties. The detritus of his creative outpourings can be found at waxbarricades.wordpress.com.