If ever there was a story that encouraged people to form the wrong idea about a person, it’s Alice Bell’s in Clio Barnard’s Dark River. The film, which Barnard wrote and directed, takes place in Yorkshire after the death of Alice’s father, Richard (Sean Bean). Alice (Ruth Wilson) never made it home before he died, or to his funeral after that, but she does show up to claim the farm he promised her and which her brother, Joe (Mark Stanley), thinks should be his.
Joe’s the one, with their father, who’s been working the land these fifteen years, and, if you didn’t know better, you’d probably side with him, too, but that’s why the choices Bernard makes at the beginning of this film are so crucial. You should never judge someone without knowing their full story but, from an outsider’s perspective, Alice’s actions look bad. As a viewer, it never really comes to that because Bernard makes sure you’re aware of where Alice is coming from and that she’s not an opportunist.
This includes letting us know, early on, that Alice was sexually abused by her father. The point of Dark River isn’t to test, or shame, viewers. It’s to tell Alice’s story through her eyes. When she first arrives at the farm Joe isn’t there, but it takes a while for her to be sure the house is empty. During the drive it was all about being confronted with the beauty of the land, but in this scene (and slightly foreshadowed by PJ Harvey’s haunting cover of the British folk song, “Acre of Land”) it’s the isolation of the farm that comes to the fore and the fear that can inspire. Alice imagines her father walking down the stairs and you know he’s not alive, but that doesn’t diminish the terror or the awareness that Alice is alone, and that there’s no one around to help her.
The past is never far away in Dark River – sometimes all it takes is a head turn for Esme Creed-Miles, the actress who plays Young Alice (and is about to star in the Amazon series, Hanna), to turn into Wilson – but Alice knows the trade (with Wilson fully embracing the physical requirements of the role, like Jennifer Lawrence did on Winter’s Bone) and, after working the sheep shearing circuit, this is her chance to settle down.
At this point, you might be ignorant like I was about how you legally run a farm. The film never mentions Richard’s will, but Alice has to apply for tenancy, which means fixing all the aspects of the farm her father and brother have let go. This speaks to how well-written Joe is as a character, too, though, because, whether or not he’s making the right calls, he is deciding to run the farm this way. He’s not avoiding cutting the field because he’s lazy. He’s avoiding cutting the field because he doesn’t think it should be cut.
The labor is rough, but Alice and Joe are rough towards each other, and the house takes a beating, as their anger builds up. Dark River takes its time divulging their history and while the ending gets a little sloppy, it works if not scrutinized — Wilson and Stanley hold nothing back.
Dark River is available March 12th on Blu-Ray and DVD.