Film Review: Dark River

A young woman goes home again to claim her inheritance and confront her past.
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Dark River is going to require a whole lot of new synonyms for “bleak.”

It’s about incest, sexual abuse and their horrific after-effects. Its characters are marked by poverty, alcoholism and violence. It features gruesome closeups of dead animals, including the onscreen disemboweling of a rabbit. And it’s all set in the muddiest, most desolate part of Yorkshire, on a tumbledown sheep farm overrun with rats.

Don’t expect a Hollywood remake anytime soon.

Yet as much as you might want to look away from Dark River, you can’t. The direction is assured, inventive, precise. The performances are compelling. And while the writing is often a little too deliberately obscure, once it becomes clear where the story is heading, it moves forward with the force of classic tragedy.

Very loosely adapted from the Rose Tremain novel Trespass by filmmaker Clio Barnard—a gifted but freewheeling interpreter, whose previous The Selfish Giant had very little to do with Oscar Wilde’s fable—it begins in the midst of sheep-shearing season. Alice, an itinerant farmhand, has just learned of her father’s death. And so, with grim reluctance, she returns home for the first time in 15 years—to see her brother, Joe, and to claim the property she feels is rightfully hers.

Her brother has other ideas about who the farm belongs to; after all, he’s been running it since Alice abruptly left in her teens. But he’s also been running it into the ground. And as they fight, over everything—should the sheep be dipped, or sprayed?—Alice begins to confront her own horrible memories, of a father who crept into her bed at night, of a brother who did nothing to stop him. Or, maybe, even helped.

This is the grimmest of material, but unlike Tim Roth’s similar but shockingly explicit film The War Zone, Barnard chooses to keep the actual abuse in the past and offscreen. It’s there in glances—the way the father (a mostly silent, intimidating Sean Bean) stares at his daughter, the way the teenager (a painfully vulnerable Esme Creed-Miles) wilts under his gaze.

Bean is an imposing but fleeting presence, seen only by the adult Alice in flashes and flashbacks. She escaped him, long ago. But his horrors haunt her—so much that when she does return home, she can’t even go into her old room. She beds down instead in a half-abandoned hut. At least there, maybe, she can lock out the memories.

Ruth Wilson, a gifted British stage actress probably best known here for Showtime’s “The Affair,” does a great deal with very little as Alice. Barnard has, very deliberately, resisted the temptation to give her any big speeches, let alone a this-is-how-I-suffered monologue. Instead, Wilson is forced to speak to us through expression and movement—the way her eyes widen when she recalls another awful moment, the way she shrinks from her old home’s upstairs.

And her mostly silent mood is answered by her brother’s explosive ones, as he storms about the farm, often drunk, occasionally violent. Is he simply mirroring the behavior he grew up with? Or is he trapped inside himself, and with his own old disgust at what he did, or didn’t do? Mark Stanley—one of Bean’s “Game of Thrones” colleagues—leaves you wondering.

There is much else that is elliptical in this film, and its deliberate ambiguity may be too much for some audiences. (Some of the confusion may have come in post, too—judging by the credits, one character, the siblings’ mother, was eliminated at the last minute.) Another hurdle? The thick Yorkshire accents that, even for Americans used to British imports, are sometimes impenetrable.

But this is a film that, right from its opening song, sung by the great PJ Harvey, artfully takes you into a world of pain and despair. And yet, in its final moments, offers just the smallest promise of healing and hope.

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