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It’s grim up north in Dark River

Decline of the farming industry provides dark and dramatic backdrop for film by director who chronicles British landscape

23 February, 2018 — By Dan Carrier

Ruth Wilson in Dark River

Directed by Clio Barnard
Certificate 15

CLIO Barnard is a chronicler of a British landscape that is rarely seen on screen. Her stories are of those trapped in a poverty that shows how the gains of the post-war settlement have been so badly undone.

In her latest film, the decline of the farming industry provides a backdrop, but the drive of the story is the lifelong effects of the crimes committed by an abusive father.

Alice (Ruth Wilson) has not been to the Yorkshire farm she grew up on for 15 years – but when her father Richard (Sean Bean) dies, she returns to find her brother living on a smallholding that is falling apart. The flocks are underfed and poorly managed, the barns crumbling, and the family home, which holds such horrors for Alice, rat-infested and semi-derelict.

But with her father now gone, she wants to stay and work with her brother Joe (Mark Stanley) to rebuild the place and make it once again productive.

Joe is depressed, a drinker, aware of the dark family history. He is angry and directs this towards his sister, spurred by the guilt he carries for failing to protect her.

The issue of the farm’s tenancy agreement provides a plot driver as we watch the siblings try to come to terms with what they have gone through and work out what the future holds.

Barnard uses a Yorkshire setting that shows the bleak beauty of the county and the harsh economic conditions that blow through it like the winds off the hills.

She has form: her 2013 film The Selfish Giant, about two children who get involved in the scrap metal trade to earn much-needed money, was a frightening consideration of poverty today.

Dark River is a good fit for her canon. Powerful, emotional, dark and dramatic, it’s one that will stay with you long after the credits roll.


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