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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The Killing of a Sacrificial Deer : A Film Review

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The Killing of the Sacrificial Deer
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos, Produced by Ed Guiney, Yorgos Lanthimos. Written by Yorgos Lanthimos, Efthymis Filippou. Cast. Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Barry Keoghan, Raffey Cassidy, Sunny Suljic, Alicia Silverstone, Bill Camp. Cinematography by Thimios Bakatakis. Edited by Yorgos Mavropsaridis. Production companies. Film4, New Sparta Films, HanWay Films, Bord Scannán na hÉireann/The Irish Film Board, Element Pictures. Duration: 2HR 1MINS Cert. 15.

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Synopsis

Dr. Steven Murphy is a renowned cardiovascular surgeon who presides over a spotless household with his wife and two children. Lurking at the margins of his idyllic suburban existence is Martin, a fatherless teen who insinuates himself into the doctor’s life in gradually unsettling ways. Soon, the full scope of Martin’s intent becomes menacingly clear when he confronts Steven with what appears to be a long-forgotten transgression that will shatter his domestic bliss forever. It is not until midway through the story takes an unexpected twist but it requires a stretch of the imagination as to is basis.

Variety Magazine reviewer Peter Debruge writes of the tome  – Nara Park, Japan, spotted deer were long believed to possess divine properties. To cause the death of one, even by accident, was a capital offense. Halfway across the world, in ancient Greece, King Agamemnon learned this the hard way, invoking the wrath of the gods for killing one of Artemis’ beloved deer, for which he was obliged to sacrifice his own daughter, Iphigenia. The obvious lesson: Don’t kill deer. But what if the deed is already done? … it does feature two key scenes in which a hunting rifle plays a critical role.

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Pulse racing performances

Colin Farrell in his element as the the male archetype in the movie by Yorgos Lanthimos’s “The Killing of a Sacred Deer,” whose films have found a co-conspirator in the shape of Farrell.  With jest, indirectness, satirical amusement along with Nicole Kidman he possibly continues to play with audiences in the after screening press interviews – this is after all part of the intruque which filmmakers keep up the hype and surrounding mystery of their film.

I think he and indeed Nicole Kidman are entirely onboard the bombast and delivery of cinematic cathartic supernatural realism which they connect on with the directors flaming lunacy. As it is another bizarre take on all our lives and all humanity swerving to avoid the nasty death scenario, which was brilliantly provocatively absurd in the Farrell and Lanthimos tale Lobster.  https://johngrahamblog.wordpress.com/2015/10/22/the-lobster-a-film-review/ Here normality takes a central role and gets turned upside down by an outsider. Using a medical backdrop is crucial in our expectation of ourselves burying thoughts of fate intervening and Farrell is a composite survivor. He is both survivor and repairer.  Clinically adept at keeping people alive where major organs go into a test of will against your brain in trying to tear down each edifice constructed to thwart the reckoning.  Dr Steve is intimidating in an unfashionably easy going way. Never one to concede he up’s the ante every time by diverse and quite clearly self deception with his wife Nicole Kidman is a fellow traveller on the make believe.

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A shape of truth

Lanthimos has constructed the archetype in the Jung manner as a universal truth or shape of the truth. The pathway to success of any kind having choices in respect of home life and family as well as protecting the young ones from evil and ensuring they too have a chance to exploit their potential. Full realisation is probably what Lanthimos is aiming for and the troubadours are both Kidman and Farrell. It is not all things in the sense of any universal truth but realised as section of it. I thought throughout the film of the scenes playing out as sections of life’s absurdity placing its own direction in front of everyone in a happenstance way. Jung’s was more a collective idea, of possession of inherited unconscious idea, pattern of thought, image, etc., universally present in individual psyches. Mastery is debunked here in the film lots of times.

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A boy who is revengeful and is prostyled as a God with special powers. The film opens beautifully with a Franz Schubert choral heraldic outpouring of the master at work. Colin Farrell at work as the renowned and respected heart surgeon Steven Murphy alongside a rich but inferior cardio-anesthetiser Matthew. The whimsy feigns on the walk through after the operation we’ve just seen as they exchange the bourgeoisie optics of a choice in diving watches. Steven is quizzical and monotone. Reviled, known, accepted. Dr Steven is after none of these attributes to adjust his psyche, he just portrays out the facts, the shape of his and his family’s life in their simplicity. At home this is particularly evident when the tasks are divided on the grounds of logic. For instance Bob their son who declines to have his hair cut before a school party is told by his father in gentle reasoned terms that it is too dangerous for him to walk the dog.

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Characterisations

Nicole as Anna is splendidly anti-Stepford wives as another archetype and is happy with the odd indiscretion and is as a clinician and I think of ophthalmologists thus, able to smoke the odd cigarette, it may even be weed given her off the cuff and leisurely comfort when indulging in a smoke. It is the same with Steven. A scene or two throws up their bedroom routine which is also a vision of their private selfs when this coupling is itself purely on their terms and not a formulaic expression of love which ‘tropes’ ‘protoreality’ might encumber them with. I think Lanthimos has, and it’s almost hidden within the film as a calming notion, a signal the achievement both have is the joy of sexual love on their satisfying terms. Without any sign of inner anxiety Anna embraces the composite union of their sex life as a non material act or with either partner having a dominant leading part. The parts are equally erotic and evolving. The nuances again are played out through the medium of their adopted speech patterns so it only becomes tangible – for them as human beings acting on their own instincts, and as a satisfying ultimately pleasurable and worthwhile shared gift – it spools out (film simile!) when they are in silence. Give or take a few noises off. It is one way of looking at their world but then the horrific enters and upsets all parables or prophetic notions.

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The covert boy steps up

Early in the film we get to know of a boy who is close to Steven and whose relationship might even be taken as a divorcees son having set times for meeting up. That’s not the case and their meeting is also not thought to be sexual but presents us with a problem why and what it actually amounts to as it passes on covertly. Barry Lonegan who turned up alongside Mark Rylance on the boat in Dunkirk puts on his best American accent (a very good all round take for a young Irishman) plays Martin whose father died on an operating table with both Stephen and Matthew holding the dinner plates. (Defibrillator needed?). For Martin it was a murder and he embarks on a conversational journey with Stephen.

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Quite how Dr Murphy allowed himself to be a foil for a Martin in the first place is beyond reading. They meet in picturesque, solitary open aired spaces under the Cities bridge, Cincinnati a likely location but it’s an anywhere place. Or they meet in a cafe or diner. The set up is odd to say the least and part of the ensuing implausibility which never looses it’s annoying grip. Allowing for the metronome action of sections of life going onward, in which most is highly predictable, an illusion is constructed to be shattered. At around midpoint dark and strange unexplained things happen.

Martin has acted to visit these appalling life changing acts upon them or that’s the premis and the family Murphy are drawn into a battle with life itself. The rolling story is now at its scariest and darkly intense. Moods alter somewhat with Doctor Stephen no longer a spokesperson for medical triumph but is set on a course to discover it has no solutions to what seem to be psychosomatic conditions. A fanaticism/realitist is in the Nicole Kidman stroke of genius as she alters her verbal continuity of external wafer thin communication in unison with Steven – they up to then are participants in a fantasy neither want to disrupt – and she is the fluctuating chime on the timepiece that is misbehaving. Family Murphy are in chaos.

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Superbly realised

The cinematography is immersive and beautiful cleansing as each location is pristine and choreographed to within an inch of is serenity. The nerveless cascade of a couple in the wonderful lifestyle and home immunised American success story is where we begin to intrude. Nicole Kidman plays no lesser a wonderful medic as an ophthalmologist with her own clinic and she is fit to the boards in terms of screen presence and the couple as actors share this gift of portraying absurdity as normality. Farrell in Lobster and Kidman in Dogville, The Hours, The Beguiled.  The cadency of this pairing is part of the fallacy, false world we are to be absorbed into.

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I chose the word cadency as it is primarily a function of both actors to not use any voice technique which is normalised. As with the a slight falling in pitch of the voice in speaking or reading, used by Colin Farrell in Lobster, he perfects once again the clinical talking and its as if it’s being read asa read through. Except the story is entirely told this way. Nicole Kidman to a lesser extent engages in this device and the deliverance is acutely jarring and then mediates as a voice of comfortable upper middle class America or any national ‘pride’ in being along for the merry joyful ride. You begin to wonder are we going down a path of horror movie and revenge driven hate for an act of – it is never conclusive – on the operating table accounting for the pain inflicted. Satirical, metaphorical, meta psychological it may be but once more Yorgos Lanthimos’s direction is not potable as any cocktail of these genres.

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Pain is at the end of the line always

At around halfway as I’ve noted earlier the film takes a nasty turn. As a revenge movie and it’s formulaic only in the sense no one gets out without pain or hurt being inflicted and even death is a visitor, it provides twists and agonising drama cinematically intense and involving. The cinematography is a clinical beautiful sweep of the inner pages of the narrative with also real emotional depth in close ups being sought out alongside the framing of rooms and corridors methodically and invisibly forceful. The colouring is contrastingly sharpest when a few bloody acts are contended and claustrophobia kicks in the deeper the harm becomes.

To elaborate further on the different scenes or twists taken would be to spoil the immediacy of the shocking effect which happens often. The black comedy and satirical take on supposed bourgeoisie is not a place to park you ideas but as a troubling film it delivers much more. It is no laugh a minute for the child actors and strains a bit however adaptable and good they are. Kim (Raffey Cassidy), a wide-eyed teenage girl, and her younger brother, Bob (Sunny Suljic) are the children in the story and they will be equally perplexed as to their part in it.

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Conclusion ####4 

The breadth of this film does not match the previous works of Yorgos Lanthimos but is need not be compared to his previous work given each piece is of a particular well honed view on life as each narrative shows separately the energy and profoundly valuable cinematic experience it composes.  Neither should you be too troubled the male character is again in the place where blame arises.

This film is a dream like journey of success which is destroyed by the traverses of life which interrupt and have elements of love and tragedy.  Sacrifice is a huge word.  The greater claim is what haunts this film which is at times horrific and bloody (Cert.15) and it graphically delivers both the beauty of a deer and the tragedy of a killing.  If you also park the male lead again ‘to blame’ in the absurdity, you’ll get by.  The surrender or destruction of something prized or desirable for the sake of something considered as having a higher or more pressing claim means Dr Stephen makes a choice holding to these thoughts. It is a claim therefore of the Director that good people become spoiled by apparently small acts and reason is lost. On both sides of this film anger is controlled until an awful outcome seems too – and you have to go along with the absurdity to aquaint yourself with another reality – is visited upon this happy successful family. A success which is based in medicine.

We see the surgeon at work and incidentally also dealing with saving lives routinely. As a hero he does not embrace the healed or the recovered in a heartfelt (sorry for the inexcusable pun) hug but routinely moves onto the next endeavour.  This is a brilliant conceit which Colin Farrell masters along with Nicole Kidman whose acting is superbly nuanced and provocatively challenging to the twin peaks of the present and the past.  Surveillance of the present and going forward as one is their menacing, troubling (to any outsider now in possession of the view) attitude and behaviours grit and twist while the plausibility is tested with pathos of speech styles and patterns forming.  It is both breathtakingly smart and highly disturbing and we’re it not for the completely visceral violent content which is in all probability actually close – you could imagine – to a real life tragedy – it is nevertheless a troubling element of the film and not a five rate drop film.

John Graham
2 October 2017
Belfast

The Killing of a Sacred Deer will screen at QFT from 03 November 2017 until 16 November 2017.

 

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