BFI LFF: Dark River (2017)

Her native rugged Yorkshire is the setting for Dark River, Clio Barnard’s follow-up to The Selfish Giant, a grim drama of a dysfunctional family and their failing farm.

Daddy Dearest

by Alexa Dalby

Dark River

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Alice (Ruth Wilson) returns to the family farm in the beautiful Yorkshire dales after the death of her father. She’s been away for 15 years, working as a freelancer on farms around the country, sheep shearing. Her brother Joe (Mark Stanley) is resentful – her absences means he has borne the burden of looking after their father. The family sheep farm has fallen into disrepair, the farmhouse is dilapidated and on her return Ruth surprises and enrages inarticulate Joe by telling him she has applied for the tenancy – she’s claiming ownership because she feels the farm is hers. He has plans of his own.

What happened to make Alice stay away for so long, why did she not attend the funeral and why does she sleep in an outhouse, unable to sleep in her old bedroom? As her return inevitably means that she picks up the threads of her old life, long-buried hostility erupts between her and her brother, and in painful flashbacks her father (Sean Bean) reappears and her suppressed memories of childhood abuse resurface with an painful jolt. She and her brother have to deal with their shared past history growing up together in that house, accusations have to be resolved, and they have to determine if they can ever agree on what the future can be. There’s wrenching violence between them, a sudden random tragic event and recurrent imagery of the waterfall and the river that played a memorably part in their childhood and will be significant in how their present and future pan out.

Clio Barnard is one of the UK’s brightest and most interesting directors and writers. Her Dark River is, as its title suggests, a grim, demanding film to watch. Its subject matter, as it is slowly revealed, is increasingly disturbing as it develops but its resolution seems somewhat tacked on. Like the sudden prevalence this year of films about boxing, there has been a swathe of UK films recently set on farms and using farming and the land as a metaphor for dealing with trauma: also set on a Yorkshire sheep farm was God’s Own Country by Francis Lee and Hope Dixon Leach’s The Levelling, set in Somerset, and Dark River suffers perhaps from this perceived similarity. This Guardian article examines the phenomenon of this New Wave of British countryside movies.

Dark River premiered at the 61st BFI London Film Festival and is released on 23 February 2017 in the UK.BFI London Film Festival 2017

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