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Clio Barnard | Dark River

[…] While the film centres upon the experience of Alice’s trauma, the result of her father’s systematically perpetrated incest that lasts well in to her late teens, there is the stale scent of another kind of abuse: a neo-feudal exploitative power over the one who works the land and produces for society by the one who owns it.

[…] Barnard seems to have chosen the truth of the post-traumatic condition over aesthetic continuity. Such victims experience flashbacks of this sort. The trauma is experienced from the vividness of the memory itself, not its repression.

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Dark River is sonically bookended by the hauntingly beautiful voice of PJ Harvey singing a traditional Norfolk folk song An Acre of Land, created with the film’s composer Harry Escott. She lilts with a softness and solemnity we find on earlier albums To Bring You My Love (1995) and White Chalk (2007), perfectly expressing not only the overall mood of the film, but an irresolvable tension between fragility and hardness found within the two siblings Alice (Ruth Wilson) and Joe (Mark Stanley).

Filmed on a derelict sheep farm in an isolated rural area of Yorkshire in far Northern England, Dark River offers us an uncompromising view of country life that can be fundamentally distorted and broken by its farming traditions. While the film centres upon the experience of Alice’s trauma, the result of her father’s systematically perpetrated incest that lasts well in to her late teens, there is the stale scent of another kind of abuse: a neo-feudal exploitative power over the one who works the land and produces for society by the one who owns it. Something that class driven Britain understands well. Director Clio Barnard is known as a social-realist film maker following the success of her remarkable second feature The Selfish Giant (2013) – no small task for a UK artist dealing with this rich tradition. Dark River permits us to glance upon the very real hardships faced by generations of farmers (filmed exclusively on an unmanageable, vermin infested property) and the flow on effect of family dysfunction (the incest and dispute over tenancy), but the realism that Barnard gives over to more emphatically in this film is a psychological one.     

The psychological realism of Barnard’s project brings all the elements of the film into an intense, merciless play. The camera rarely drifts from the faces of Alice and Joe as their chilling memories, and years of estrangement appear in a thousand different languages, with very few words spoken. Eyes mist, widen and scream at the world, but mostly at each other. The cold, steely grey of a Yorkshire sky draws out fear and the unforgiven, deeply hidden in the well of their soul. No laughter, no comic relief. We are challenged, discomforted at every second. While set in a stunning rural landscape, the film burrows firmly into their interiors. 

The florid use of flashbacks to show us the extent of her incest is problematic. Many of the scenes are punctuated with the figure of Alice’s now dead father (Sean Bean) who haunts her everyday perceptions as an unwanted visitor. Complete takes of her as a teen (Esme Creed-Miles) show us the even deeper conflict of her participation in their sexual relationship. Instead, Barnard could have trusted the facility of her actors to suggest the truth of these events in a more minimalist mode. A mode that she already deftly works with in the film. The power of absence (camera lingering on Alice’s empty room untouched since childhood) over making present the past with Bean’s actual presence would point to the truth just as evenly and with more subtlety. Yet in saying this, Barnard seems to have chosen the truth of the post-traumatic condition over aesthetic continuity. Such victims experience flashbacks of this sort. The trauma is experienced from the vividness of the memory itself, not its repression. Lacking embodiment of the father, or sequences from her past, we might not have understood the trauma specific to Alice’s story. But then again, good film making does not need to explicitly show to tell us anything.

The cinematic richness comes from the more minimal and intimate aspects of Barnard’s work: where she points our attention, and for how long. This combined with the raw and undeniably strong performances of Wilson and Stanley, we are not only dropped into the tumult of emotions that they expertly modulate with a look or gesture, but we are also serenaded by these “acres of land” through the actor’s physical labour on screen. Nature is transformed by the extraneousness of human effort. The viscerality of this is felt in every tiring, unwashed moment. Dark River exposes the muddy interiors of Alice and Joe, but also the land. A land encountered not only as field or paddock, but ultimately earth itself.  

Text: Jodie McNeilly-Renaudie | Audio/Video: Ruth Baettig

First published: June 07, 2018

Dark River | Film | Clio Barnard | UK 2017 | 89’ | Bildrausch Filmfest Basel 2018

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