Arrow Video: Dark River (2017) - Reviewed

Critically acclaimed British filmmaker Clio Barnard’s third official feature Dark River finds the director moving away from her experimental roots that defined her debut The Arbor and yet emerges with a picture no less devastating than her Oscar Wilde picture The Selfish Giant

Spoken of the same breath as Tim Roth’s The War Zone in terms of depicting the overarching effects sexual abuse has on a family though far more restrained and lyrical in approach by comparison, Dark River is a somber yet painterly character driven drama as well as a near-silent thriller of burgeoning familial tensions.  That its realisateur paints with broad brushstrokes here instead of the elliptical approach characteristic of her first feature doesn’t diminish the film’s emotional power and dreary tonality, leaving you the viewer feeling as if you’ve been struck full blast by oceanic white caps.

Based loosely upon Rose Tremain’s novel Trespass concerning two elders in Southern France enmeshed in a property dispute, Barnard transposes the story to Yorkshire and decreases the age of the brother-sister siblings considerably with the additional thread of buried familial secrets coming back to haunt the feuding duo.  Enter Alice Bell (Ruth Wilson), a young sheep shearer who makes the hasty decision to return home on the eve of her father’s death in order to claim tenancy of the farmland as father promised.

Her mission proves increasingly difficult as buried memories of her abusive father threaten her psychological stability not long before her irate and slovenly brother Joe (Mark Stanley) arrives on the scene to lock horns over the land rights, building up to an unforgettable confrontation that will invariably reshape the rest of their lives forever.

Bleak and foreboding yet consistently engaging with strong performances from the small cast including but not limited to Sean Bean seen briefly in flashback as Alice’s father, Dark River benefits greatly from the Yorkshire setting with stunningly beautiful wide angled shots of the countryside exquisitely captured by cinematographer Adriano Goldman. 

Aiding the dismal proceedings is a mournful original score by Harry Escott who also collaborated with singer PJ Harvey to provide a cover of the traditional English folk song An Acre of Land, capturing the tone of the world and the characters inhabiting it perfectly.  While original songs are always going to be debatable in regards to their service to a picture outside of copping an Academy Award nomination, it’s hard to imagine Dark River being nearly half as effective without Escott and Harvey’s musical contribution to the piece. 

Downbeat and heavy yet modest in how it deals with the difficult subject matter, dreary yet sublime to behold visually and sonically a gift for the ears, Dark River isn’t fun or easy viewing yet proves to be most rewarding for those willing to tough it out.  Full of scenic beauty and delicate in how it assesses the highs and lows experiences by the characters, Clio Barnard’s third feature will leave quite an impression on viewers. 

As a story dealing with as troubling a subject as abuse, it never exploits or sensationalizes, keeping the perspective grounded from the prism of the protagonist’s point off view.  This taut and effective independent drama isn’t for all tastes but for the adventurous cinephile it’s a solid little number that cements the writer-director’s reputation as an exciting new talent to watch closely for!

--Andrew Kotwicki