Following her father’s death, a woman returns to the farm she grew up on after 15 years, but the reunion with her brother will have nothing but dire consequences.
The hand-held camera and close-ups on Alice after the opening sequence speak volumes from the very beginning about her esoteric world. Upon her return to the farm, and the siblings’ reunion, Ruth Wilson and Mark Stanley do a great job as estranged brother and sister, but the moment’s awkwardness, as well as the rest of the film’s pace and rhythm are well controlled by the editors Luke Dunkley and Nick Fenton. Writer/director Clio Barnard, Yorkshire lass born and raised, works with the excellent cinematographer Adriano Goldman, and delves into the personal drama Alice and Joe have to endure while developing simultaneously the tribulations of owing a farm nowadays. On one hand, their personal suffering seems impossible to be dealt with. While we get glimpses of the past, we can only imagine how hard it is for Alice to be back there. What we don’t know, until much later on, is how much Joe knows and how he positions himself in this predicament. Thus, we cannot fully comprehend the animosity between them.
On the other hand, owing that farm along with its innumerable troubles, only escalates that tension. What ideally could have happened, what did happen, as well as with how it could have been dealt with and how it was actually dealt with creates a family disaster of galactic proportions. That intensity is what describes the film. If I were forced to pick on something, that would be the fact that the tone is, from beginning to end, gloom and doom. As Dark River is mainly a drama, I would expect from it to give some hope before it takes it back. Instead, it just keeps on slowly and steadily taking it, leaving you bereft. Hence, the narrative’s element of surprise is lost there as, from a certain point on, you know that every new sequence you are about to watch is going to be a yet another calamitous encounter between the siblings.
Don’t be discouraged by that though. Dark River is the poster child of British indie cinema that only evokes emotions from relatable stories and characters and surfaces real dramas that take place in the world that you and I live in. Watch it and get to know an England so much different to the films that open with an aerial shot of London, shot wherever else after that, and dive into banalities that allegedly describe England. Dark River combines the cinematic realism and the English countryside, free of stereotypes and clichés.