LFF 2017: Ruth Wilson is utterly heartbreaking in Clio Barnard's rural drama
It's one life's most gut-wrenching realities that so many live in fear of members of their own family. Dark River sees a woman return to the scene of her childhood trauma after a 15-year absence to lay claim to the Yorkshire farm that was promised to her.
It's the third feature from the indecently talented Clio Barnard, after The Selfish Giant and docudrama The Arbor, and stars the similarly gifted Ruth Wilson, a Golden Globe winner for TV's The Affair. Wilson plays Alice Bell, who has been living a nomadic existence, travelling the world on the shepherding 'circuit', running from memories that surface as fragments throughout the film, with her predatory father Richard (Sean Bean) appearing like a phantom.
Alice feuds with her brother Joe (Mark Stanley) in the aftermath of their father's death when she applies for the tenancy of their farm, which has fallen into a state of disrepair. The chaotic Joe is adamant that he has succession rights but Alice's professionalism gives her a better chance. She's from a line of formidable women; we're told the farm hasn't performed to its potential since her mother and grandmother ran it.
Dark River recalls Far from the Madding Crowd as its gorgeous, capable leading lady mixes it up in the world of gruff men with suspect agendas, but Wilson's quietly gutsy, deeply damaged Alice is the antithesis of the latter's prideful, provocative heroine. Barnard brings out the beauty of the landscape with its expansive, painterly vistas but grey skies loom ominously overhead, and a rumbling score further unsettles the picture.
The sibling dynamic in the wake of abuse is seldom explored. While Alice turns her agony inwards, Joe's is projected furiously out. Words are hard for both to find but eventually two questions sum up the anger and assumptions that have caused a gulf to grow between them. Stanley is superb, yet it is Wilson that will leave you shaken. Head bowed in permanent fear and apology, her performance is impossibly affecting – teasing out Alice's pain and foregrounding her courage, ahead of the inevitable, earth-shattering eruption.
Screening on Sat 7 and Thu 12 Oct as part of the London Film Festival 2017. General release from Fri 23 Feb.