Review – Sibling squabbles over farmland give way to emotional tidal waves in ‘Dark River’

Poster for 2018 British rural drama Dark River

Genre: Drama
Certificate: 15
UK Release Date: 23rd February 2018
Runtime: 90 minutes
Director: Clio Barnard
Writer: Clio Barnard
Starring: Ruth Wilson, Mark Stanley, Sean Bean
Synopsis: After the death of her father, a woman returns home to her family’s farm, where she immediately butts heads with her brother about the rightful future for the land, as well as the dark shared secret that soured their relationship and drove her away.



Two siblings. One farm in Yorkshire. A dark secret. A battle for control of a small flock of sheep and a decrepit building. It sounds more like a B-plot from an episode of Emmerdale than it does the recipe for one of the best films of 2018 so far. But that’s reckoning without the filmmaking prowess of Yorkshire-born director Clio Barnard. Dark River is her follow-up to the emotionally overwhelming The Selfish Giant and sees the auteur on similarly parochial form, with her trademark injection of raw emotional power. It’s a compelling British drama that recognises less is often more.

The film is book-ended by PJ Harvey’s haunting rendition of the folk song ‘An Acre of Land’, which really sets the tone for what’s to come when it accompanies the early scene in which Alice (Ruth Wilson) returns to her family farm after more than a decade away. Her father (Sean Bean) has died and, in the short period since, Alice’s brother Joe (Mark Stanley) has let the farm fall into ruin. Alice applies to take control of the tenancy in an attempt to save the land, but Joe soon puts in a counter claim as the siblings continue to clash.

Dark River is a title chosen for its multiple meanings, both as a literal evocation of the stream near the farm and as a metaphor for the horrible family secret that runs like a raging torrent through the psyche of both siblings, creating a formidable divide between them. Stanley’s brutish Joe wears his trauma and grief on his sleeve and through his fists, as well as in the chaotic decrepitude of the farm, which Joe has allowed to fall apart as a reflection of his fractured mental state.

Wilson, meanwhile, internalises her grief and horror, having separated herself from the home that holds so many troubling memories. Her performance is a minimalist one, powered by a gait and an expression that looks like it is carrying the entire weight of the world. Wilson’s stellar performance conveys every inch of the emotion behind the character’s actions and she perfectly illustrates the notion of a woman hollowed out by the awful things that happened in her youth – which Barnard delivers via subtly chilling flashbacks.

Dark River is about the issues with leaving matters unsaid and the enormity of tackling trauma too big for a human being to accommodate. The weight of that trauma has fractured and destroyed an entire family and Barnard uses the land as a metaphor for that destruction. As part of the new grand tradition in rural British cinema that brought us the fabulous God’s Own Country last year, this is another tremendous outing for one of the UK’s most exciting filmmakers.



Pop or Poop?

Rating: Pop!

It’s minimalist, quiet and visually subdued, but none of that prevents Dark River from possessing extraordinary emotional power. Clio Barnard casts a haunting spell with the isolating visuals and PJ Harvey’s music motif only serves to amplify that unusual feel. The performances are compelling, with Ruth Wilson in particular sticking out with a turn that recognises the complexity of trauma and the struggle to overcome it.


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