Just when you thought you’d seen the very best film set on a farm in Yorkshire this year in Francis Lee’s God’s Own Country – along comes Clio Barnard to provide some stiff competition. This exceptionally talented filmmaker, whose work can be compared to that of which we see from Shane Meadows, follows on from The Arbor and The Selfish Giant with yet another tremendously bleak affair – but such is the conviction and commitment to reality, it’s rewarding, fulfilling cinema, despite the themes being explored.
Alice (Ruth Wilson) left her family’s farm years ago, and had little desire to return. Until her father, portrayed in flashbacks by Sean Bean, passes away. With the farm now in the hands of her volatile brother Joe (Mark Stanley) she decides to head back home and take control of the family business. With her best intentions at heart, she wants to claim the tenancy to what she believes is rightfully hers – but having not been around for 15 years, she faces opposition from Joe who is of the opinion that he is the rightful landowner.
Despite the opening line in this review – similarities to God’s Own Country are somewhat tenuous, for the latter lingers on the notion of birth, with hope a paramount theme. On a farm, however, if there is one thing as prevalent as birth, it’s death – and it’s here this film thrives. Naturally what transpires is a challenging watch, that is unrelenting in how desolate it becomes.
While perhaps the bleak nature of the narrative is somewhat overbearing, and predictable in parts, as you can foresee the tragic elements of the story – it doesn’t mean this isn’t worthwhile cinema, for it’s been presented in such a beautiful way; the harshness of the landscape and the serenity of the wilderness combining to make for a truly evocative endeavour. Barnard uses imagery so intelligently too, and the notion of memory – in how small, seemingly innocuous things can remind Alice of her harrowing past, a subtle smell, or a noise, constantly taking her back to the dark places in her mind.
Given the nature of the film, in order to work it requires a strong leading performance, and with Wilson that much is a given. It’s such a nuanced turn, and she conveys so much without the need for dialogue, with a sadness and vacancy behind her eyes that suggests she’s been through so much, conflicted in her emotions as she returns home to say goodbye to the man who inflicted the majority of her anguish. The actress is matched at every turn by Stanley too – as between their performances, and the ability in Barnard’s storytelling, it ensures that Dark River is one of the standout British films this year.