Barnard lovingly portrays the emotional and physical toll of working a land that seems to grow less fertile and less sustainable.
In her innovative documentary The Arbor and feature adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Selfish Giant, director Clio Barnard vividly captured the working class of Bradford in Northern England. Her latest drama, Dark River, adapted in part from Rose Tremain’s 2010 novel Trespass, immerses the viewer in the farming community of Barnard’s native Yorkshire. But despite strong central performances and a vivid sense of place, its dramatic tropes, however unsettling, never quite come into the deep focus that Barnard gives to the picturesque yet challenging landscape.
After her father dies, Alice (Ruth Wilson) returns to Yorkshire for the first time in 15 years. She hopes to claim tenancy of the family farm, which her older brother Joe (Mark Stanley) has let go, in part due to caring for their sick father. He’s going to put up a fight, but the reunion was already going to be strained, as the old farmhouse carries ghosts for Alice: Everywhere she looks, she sees her childhood self, in anxious anticipation of her father’s sexual advances.
Dark River has a rock-solid foundation; Adriano Goldman’s evocative cinematography paints a rich picture of the land that Alice left behind and of the community from which she became estranged. Stanley is effectively feral as the troubled, hostile sibling who let his sister down when they were kids but was nevertheless hurt that she left him to fend for himself, however valid her reasons were. Finally, Wilson is pitch-perfect as the wounded but strong-willed Alice, her expressive features subtly conveying a lifetime of inner conflict, all the more impressive in a restrained first act that relies on minimal dialogue.
However, this fluid stream is broken. Flashbacks to Alice’s abusive father (as well as other, less fraught childhood memories), become intrusive, interrupting what could have been a taut, stark dramatic structure. The leads are more than capable of playing out their adult difficulties without the script returning, time and again, to past incidents that mean to shed light on the present but instead distract from it.
Alice’s first flashback suggests a horror movie, as she’s startled in her childhood home by the figure of a distressed girl who is in fact her younger self. It’s a powerful image of the passage of time—or, rather, the notion that what’s past is present, and the memories of a place never quite go away and will inevitably haunt us. Unfortunately, Barnard strikes this profound note too frequently, taking away from Wilson’s quietly unsettled performance.
The movie is at its best not when Alice struggles with her past but when she and her brother butt heads, their years of resentment spilling out into increasingly volatile and violent outbursts. Against a gorgeous rural backdrop, Barnard lovingly portrays the emotional and physical toll of working a land that seems to grow less fertile and less sustainable. Deep River takes its title from a Ted Hughes poem in which, “Any moment now, a last kick/ And the dark river will fold it away.” The resulting work aims for the power of that natural force, but only intermittently reaches it.