Monday, August 27, 2018

Movie Review: Dark River

Dark River ** ½ / *****
Directed by: Clio Barnard.
Written by: Clio Barnard and Lila Rawlings based in part on the novel by Rose Tremain.
Starring: Ruth Wilson (Alice), Mark Stanley (Joe Bell), Sean Bean (Richard Bell), Esme Creed-Miles (Young Alice), Aiden McCullough (Young Joe), Shane Attwooll (Tower), Steve Garti (Jim), Una McNulty (Susan Bell), Dean Andrews (Matty), Jonah Russell (Pete), Paul Roberson (Declan). 
There is so much to admire about Clio Bernard’s Dark River, that I just wish the filmmaker had a found an interesting story to tell – or at least a unique angle on her themes – to really tie the movie together. Barnard, whose first two films are the almost the almost avant-garde documentary The Arbor, and the neo-realist The Selfish Giant, were both unique, arresting and ultimately devastating films. Dark River is her most conventional film to date, and also her most disappointing. Up until now, she has mainly avoided the type of indie movie clichés that could make her films the kind of dark, parade of misery that Dark River ends up being. Yes, there is a fine central performance in the film, and Barnard has a great sense of place with the film. But the film just never really rises up from cliché – the story is so slight, it’s barely there – and its place is a lot of long, sad looks.
The talented Ruth Wilson stars in the film as Alice, an Irish farmer who hasn’t returned to her home in 15 years, but is now going because her father (Sean Bean) has just died. He had promised her the tenement farm that he worked for years when he passed, and she plans to collect it. When she returns though, she finds her brother, Joe (Mark Stanley) still there – and he’s not too happy to see his sister. He knows what went on when they were children – things we see in the form of slowing opening doors, and Bean (who I’m not sure says a word in the film) creeping into his daughter’s bed – but they don’t talk about it. They don’t talk about very much at all actually. He spends almost the entire film pissed off, and she spends it almost paralyzed in fear – she cannot enter her old house without having flashbacks.
Therein lies the problem with Dark River – once it establishes its basic, barebones plot and its characters, it doesn’t really have any place to go with them. I do think Wilson does a very good job playing a woman who is trying to overcome her fears – tired of running away for her past, she is determined to return and make the farm – which her father and brother didn’t take care of – work again. She is more than capable of running the farm – populated by sheep, that the film more than once symbolically slaughters – but Joe fights her at every turn.
As a director, I think Barnard does a good job at many things in the film. The performances are good, even if the actors are playing them with one hand tied behind their backs since the film never lets them really explain what they’re doing or why. She also has an excellent sense of place – the dark, ominous clouds, the dreary drabness of the farm. Barnard has always excelled at putting working class people on screen – and she does so here again.
But her screenplay really lets her down here. The siblings are either fighting with each other, or looking at each other in silence. When they finally do speak, its pretty much too little too late, but at least they clear the air somewhat. The final scenes of the movie don’t really add up like they should – Barnard is milking them for maximum impact, but it’s just too little, too late.
I still think Barnard is an excellent filmmaker – The Arbor is an underseen gem that I wish more people would track down, and The Selfish Giant is quite good as well. This one shows she is a filmmaker with talent – but the material here just needed something a little bit more to turn it into something fuller, more complete, more satisfying.

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