Dark River : A Film Review

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Dark River

Written and Directed by Clio Barnard. Produced by Tracy O’Riordan. Cast : Ruth Wilson as Alice, Mark Stanley as Joe Bell, Seán Bean as Richard Bell, Esme Creed-Miles as Young Alice, Aiden McCullough as Young Joe, Shane Atwood as Tower, Steve Garth as Jim, Una McNulty as Susan Bell, Jonah Russell as Pete, Paul Robertson as Dec, Music by Harry Escott, (credit with PJ Harvey song of An Acre of Land), Cinematography by Adriano Goldman, Edited by Luka Dunkley, Nick Fenton, Production companies, Film4, Left Bank Pictures, Moonspun Pictures. Distributed by Arrow Films. Duration 1hr 29 mins. Certificate 15. Language, English. Country United Kingdom.  Supported by BFI and Wellcome Foundation.

Directors words

The third (after her The Arbor and The Selfish Giant) Clio Barnard film Dark River is a stark rural set familial drama which is unrelentingly grim and a reflection of contemporary unspoken and also prominent incidences of sexual abuse that are now surfacing as never before with revelatory troubling concerns. How Dark River is an example of the hidden domestic sexual abuse which is a scourge of society and is very hard to uncover is brought through the skilful yet sometimes evasive and metaphorical direction taken.  The water of the river in the Yorkshire setting is a place where it is both custodian and cleanser of the revelations made. Dark River is credited with a connection having been made to the book Trespass by Rose Tremain in its title closing credits.

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Beginning

Alice played with grace and substance by Ruth Wilson is returning to the place which is where she was once abused.  Having opened the film with her shearing sheep with equal speed and ease as men on contract farm work the sunny disposition of a shared lunch break is overtaken by the need to return home and lay claim to the farm she left fifteen years earlier.

Here she finds her brother Joe who is played by a strong oxen type of a young man in his thirties by Mark Stanley who must and does create a brooding sometimes menacing and broken keeper of the land of their father.

It begins with a lovely song by PJ Harvey, whose voice like that of Nora Jones, is set back into the folds of radio playlists for late time listening. Seldom is the story as close to the brooding melody and words of “An acre of land.” Differently it is to the scapes of the dales Clio Barnards cinematic eye is cast which is as a mostly dark and seldom warm environment. Beautiful it is but it foreshadows the emotions soon to be brought forth. The Bradford of The Selfish Giant is Beyond this environment. Where the poverty and determination sometimes playful and joyous in that film appeared occasionally no sense of joy is seen here. The landscape is the lasting thing but having returned to where she grew up, the home is too much a haunted place full of recurrent traumatic memories.

There is no mention of any substance to their mother and another departure is not made to explain the relationship which is like having a table with a missing leg. Instead the darkness is kept to be contained in the reaction and emotional torment faced by Alice in all kinds of confronting forms. By choosing to go back she is laying down a recapturing of her rightful legacy as a form of affront to the misdeeds and dreadful abuse she suffered there.

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Recovery

It is not possible or easy to reclaim the land in a bonding or empathetic sense, which is where Clio Barnard is taking the film. The river is not cleansing but is a habitat itself suffused with memory. Water is a splendid cinematic medium as a certain recent film testifies to. Alice in going back is troubling from the outset. She is firstly unable to live in the house. She instead chooses to life in the adjacent prefab. She has immediate flashbacks. The flashbacks are with her also in the life she has just left. Esme Creed-Miles as Young Alice, Aiden McCullough as Young Joe, create a bleak vision of the childhood tensions brilliantly and others such as Shane Atwood as Tower, provide a range of solid character parts.

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As well as visits to agricultural markets and the occasional pub, the landscape is significantly large as the land is shown with Yorkshire itself a broad scoping individual of a natural territory which the lens follows a formidable elemental beast. The North Sea is not far away from the river running to it. The weather and conditions are harsh and uncompromising. The skies are huge. The fields and boundaries wide. Some opening shots show the idyllic stone wall close cropped fields and padlocked animals as well as the straggling electricity pylons marching across the land of the white rose of Yorkshire as some behemoth. In exploring the two sides of the story. The land and its occupants it appears as though an attempt which Is unfortunately not achieved of a divination of some sort being sought or impending doom at the door.

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Landlocked

Joe is the custodian of the land and is brought to consider the harm caused by his father and carries with it an unspoken sorrow and guilt in having been there and unable to stop it. As well as his own lack of fatherly guidance to find a rebalancing for he is deeply at odds with the cruelty of the world and the bigger picture is someway seen through his innocence. There is talk of the big big world and his sole or limited excursions away from the farm concerned delivery of potato seedlings to and from Ireland.

 

That is seen as another green field. Where the grass is greener and the ways strange but a set of values of equivalence but not if his own. Such a position as we know is a gigantic misnomer. Keeping with Noe his sense of belonging is more complex than the film is able to document. It relies on conversations of alternative means of farming when challenged by Alice to make it work and go forward. The strength was and is in the soil and I heard Michael Longley speak of the isolation in Co. Mayo in its remoteness and his muse Carrigskeewaun. The town land of the place giving a broad expanse for the imagination to go wild and be entrained by belonging.

 

That land is mostly empty through immigration and escape to the towns near and far. Yet it remains a muse.

Here my imagination

Tangles through a turfstack

Like skeins of sheep’s wool:

Is a bull’s horn silting

With powdery seashells. extract from M. Longley’s poetry.

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Binaries

The land is cast almost as the ultimate boundary and to it, nature we all return. The lines of Longley’s poems infuse this sense of separation by the necessity of language, names , nomenclature to express their permanence as they newly cast out repetitions of themselves in life’s great mystery of binary codes. The powdery shells of calcium carbonate cast off.

Different lands but primordial things speaking back to us through the land as nature sustains location.

Dark River takes care to reveal this in Joe, and Alice is similarly a symbol for the land. How it is conveyed is through the absence of the connectiveness she yearns for that Joe possibly still possesses. The drama is the conflict of the two as metaphorical damaged people. The harm being internalised in Joe and he does not even know but Alice soon becomes distraught apart from her own remaking sense of belonging. Joe is approached by a land agent after Alice applies for tenancy rights. He is taken aback by the arrogance of Alice with her citing neglect of the farm and decline down to him. The buildings are in disrepair, the land boundaries broken in some places and tillage and unkept fields not consistent with tenancy agreements.

 

Mending fences

There is a period when the differences could be mended though Joe points out some home truths. The clear inability now she’s back, of Alice to unburden the hurt and harm and the unwitnessed haunting and recurring themes which we visit by flashback. The river is a retreat and a temporary escape. In previous times Alice had made her lover a young farmer called Spider and he is an occasional entry to the film. Joe is deeply disturbed by the possible change of role and the methods Alice uses to work the farm.

When Joe applies for the farm he is approached by land agents who want to remove both of them whatever the methods deployed. Without criminal or lawless action but by manipulation and blackmail the land agents set in play a set of irreversible actions.

There is a confused end to the film in which retreat is to flashback to carry the fathers hurtful and saturating part in the story. Alice is confronted by a set of new challenges which unfold from Joe’s disturbed mind. There is no remission from the causes of harm nor any satisfactory outcome possible but time is constant and this is a period of both their life’s which set them in conflict with each other and in need of repair.

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Conclusion ###3

Very occasionally a film comes along to reach into the dark corners of domestic abuse and also the wider incidences in institutional abuses. Sports, entertainment and many Religious institutions are presently in the headlines along with organised criminal and community sexual abuse being uncovered across these islands. This tires hard to tackle the subject through a story taken from the core of the book Trespass by Rose Tremain and visualising and dramatising a single woman’s story.

This story departs greatly from the land ideal and the places ‘genus loci’ being ultimately eroded and land speaking like Longley’s Carrigskeewaun being almost a skeleton of the earths bones being seen again after mans tilling and ancient furrowing of its surface to raise a life on. An Acre of Land – the song speaks of ancient giving and the scrawny legacy it represents unkept. The environment is key as is our relation to it is the message and the human being is sinful in every respect and often unworthy as a keeper. Alice is a retrieval missionary but is thwarted by the sibling ownership of equal resonance. Almost the child is the father of the man in Hugh Leonard’s sense.

from the graphic violence and incest visited on Audrun by her father and brother to Anthony’s near-romantic love for his careless and selfish mother. Then, engineering them into an impossibly volatile situation – kickstarted by Anthony’s immediate attraction to the crumbling Mas Lunel, and Audrun’s determination that it should not be sold – she leaves them to reap the consequences of their wonky desires and impetuous actions.” A reviewers take on Trespass.

The subject matter is a momentous multi layered one which is hard to dial into. Landscape is evoked as a contestable territory where vices are in conflict through the unresolved past and methods and approach’s carry the leaden crook sacrifice of innocence as the nature is fought with and contested without remorse, solace or forgiveness. Like many cases the time has past where the perpetrator has long gone and ultimately the sins of the father are left as remnants of history to be picked over like crows on a sheeps skull. A difficult slightly wandering and confusing watch but a worthy effort on a subject so difficult to handle or bring insight to.

John Graham

02 March 2018

Belfast

Showing on 02 March 2018 until 08 March 2018 at Queens Film Theatre.

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