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Dark River, review – dive into this murky Yorkshire drama at your own risk

When a woman returns to the family farm, her troubled past is clear. But despite the imposing backdrop, Clio Barnard’s drama is a tough watch

A Yorkshire farmer called Joe is asked if he’s seen much of the world. Joe, a gruff, unkempt young man who says little and rarely leaves his messy cottage except to tend the sheep that roam the surrounding land, considers the question. Having duly pondered the extent of his cosmopolitanism, he answers: “Dover. To pick up some spuds.”

I don’t know if this remark was meant to be funny, a droll comment perhaps at the expense of northern parochialism. But I smiled, and it was a welcome opportunity, a rare burst of sunlight in skies crowded with rain-sodden clouds. Dark River, the film in which this scene occurs, demands a kind of hushed respect, but boy, it’s a grim, hard slog.

The question is put to Joe (Mark Stanley) by his sister Alice (Ruth Wilson, very good in a demanding role). Alice has been away from the family farm for years now, earning good money as a sheep shearer in further-flung places than Dover. But the death of her father has brought her back home.

Dad is glimpsed, at telling moments, as a mute ghost (played by Sean Bean), and his spectral influence hovers over the grown-up siblings throughout the film. Alice, we realise through the flashbacks that director Clio Barnard introduces into the present-day story with sinewy grace, had her reasons to delay coming back. The look of quiet satisfaction she takes on hearing from Joe that her dad was in some pain before he died hints at the troubles afflicting their relationship.

Played by Sean Bean as a mute ghost, Dad’s spectral influence hovers over the grown-up siblings throughout the film

Neglected by Joe (whose farming skills are far inferior to Alice’s), the family home is now over-run with rats; but it’s less the vermin than the memories of a blighted childhood that deter Alice from spending much time there, especially what occurred in the bedroom she occupied as a teenager.

Dark River is an account of a dreadful family trauma, the true nature of which becomes slowly apparent; and the lasting impact it has on Alice and Joe. Barnard is a talented and original filmmaker (her 2010 film The Arbor is one of the great British documentaries of recent times); and this new film features flashes of that brilliance. There’s a stark lyricism to the landscapes that jumps off the screen: like last year’s Yorkshire-set farming drama God’s Own Country, this is a pretty miserable affair, but Yorkshire emerges as a forbiddingly beautiful location to be miserable in.

The problem is on a more human scale. The tone of the drama veers wildly from gloomy introspection to shouty melodrama. Alice and Joe are either barely communicating through terse mumbles; or erupting with violent and expressive directness (witness Alice’s unusual use of a pair of sheep shears towards the end of the film). It’s hard to keep track, and an air of dusty implausibility soon settles over proceedings despite the committed performances.

A subplot involving the sale of the farm exacerbates the resentment between the siblings, but the arrival of property agents to set this up feels more like plot devices designed to crank up the tension.

There is, incidentally, an actual dark river in the movie – a local water spot that Alice occasionally bathes in. This is Yorkshire, in conditions that don’t look very summery to me, and while I’m sure Alice is refreshed by the dip, she doesn’t look like she’s enjoying herself. I had similar feelings about this film. Dark River is a bracing reminder of Barnard’s talent, but enter its depths with caution.

Dark River is in cinemas from February 23

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