After a five-year break from the big screen, writer-director Clio Barnard returns with tense British thriller Dark River, which packs an uncomfortable punch.
Ruth Wilson stars as Alice, a quiet, self-sufficient farmhand, working hard shearing sheep and earning money. After hearing the news that her father (Sean Bean) has passed away, Alice makes the tough decision to return to the village and the farm she grew up on, despite traumatic memories and flashbacks to the past.
On arrival, she’s confronted by her brother Joe (Game of Thrones‘ Mark Stanley), who’s been tending the farm for the 15 years Alice has been gone, believing the farmland should be handed to him considering his dedication to it. This sparks a nasty competition between brother and sister, both trying to prove the farm to be rightfully theirs. However, as Alice’s harrowing memories resurface thick and fast, she has to decide whether reliving the past is worth it for a shot at managing her own land – and is it worth losing her brother over it?
Wilson is outstanding, leading the charge of great British talent through a sad story that touches on themes of familial allegiance, history, assault, and love. From the start she exudes a tough, don’t-touch-me aura, a woman who needs no help and can fend for herself. However, as she steps foot back on the farm she was so desperate to leave behind, that aura slowly erodes away, revealing a vulnerable, haunted figure, hard to recognise compared to the Alice we see at the start. Wilson’s hard shell is mirrored in Stanley’s Joe, a hardworking, weathered man, tainted by the same memories as Alice, who uses alcohol as a crutch. The two butt heads throughout the narrative, the natural push/pull of a brother and sister exacerbated by their troubling teenage years. The cast is rounded out by Bean’s menacing portrayal of an abusive father, and the brilliant Joe Dempsie’s David, Alice’s ex-boyfriend.
With such a strong cast, Barnard doesn’t need to over-direct, choosing to focus on telling the story. Her use of close-ups, establishing shots of the vacant farmland, and long periods of silence all help to build the tension, an unnerving position for the viewer. Pairing this with the flashbacks to Alice’s history with her father, Dark River is, at times, incredibly uncomfortable to watch – it’s what’s alluded to and unseen that makes us fearful for her.
Dark River is a strong return for Barnard. Its sensitive story-line, told by some of the UK’s strongest talent, and makes for a tough, gripping watch.