Dark River is a psychological drama film set in the Yorkshire countryside. Ruth Wilson stars as the lead character, Alice, a woman who returns home to her family’s farm following the death of her abusive father (Sean Bean).
Director Clio Barnard explained during a Q&A that there was a conscious effort to make Alice’s abuse clear from the outset, wishing to ensure that her past didn’t feel like a reveal or a plot device. Barnard was successful on this front, with Alice’s psychological trauma acting as a facet of her character but never feeling like a driving force for the story. Her past is certainly important – after all, it’s a major factor in the decisions that she makes in the movie – but her trauma is always in the background and has its place as an explanation for why she is unable to communicate properly with her brother (Joe, played by Mark Stanley).
The story is well-handled throughout the film and I thoroughly respect the choices that Barnard made during production; particularly the decision to omit dialogue-heavy scenes involving Sean Bean. One of the main themes that this film tackles is guilt, with the lead characters constantly battling the emotion as well as one another, so it makes sense to let that linger in the air rather than allowing an outrage-inducing scene to subtract from the movie’s power.
Alice feels guilty about her part in what happened to her and she struggles to overcome her past; she wonders why she didn’t stand up to her father and couldn’t make him stop, and she regrets that she didn’t visit him before his death. Joe, on the other hand, is hurt by the fact that his sister left him alone on the farm and is equally angry with himself for letting her down. It’s obvious that he feels a lot of shame about what happened to his sister even though his guilt is misplaced, and his inability to articulate his emotions leaves him in a constant state of remorse.
None of this information is forced on the audience through exposition or conversation, with Barnard instead choosing to respect the viewer’s intelligence and allowing the immaculate performances of Wilson and Stanley to tell the story for her.
In summary, there’s a lot to appreciate when it comes to Dark River, especially given the difficulties that Barnard had to be overcome during its production such as the fact that the actors and crew had to learn how to manage animals on a farm. The care that her direction displays makes the experience markedly better, with fantastic performances and insightful writing bringing a sense of gravitas to the subject matter. It’s certainly a contained and somewhat limited film, but it’s also a thoughtful take on abuse and the obligations that we have to our loved ones.