Thursday, 22 February 2018

"Dark River" (Little White Lies Jan/Feb 2018)

Call it the New Ruralism: a recent run of lowish-budget homegrown features that have broadened British cinema’s horizons by returning us to the soil. Practical winds guide these projects; there may be less competition for Screen Yorkshire funding than there is at Film London. Yet this grassroots initiative also speaks to a growing empathy between our creatives and the nation’s farmhands, toiling long hours at society’s fringes for scant recompense. Clio Barnard’s Dark River forms the third born-in-a-barn movie to open inside a year, enough to convert eminent anomalies The Levelling and God’s Own Country into a movement of sorts, even if, dramatically, it presents as by far the slightest.

Barnard’s agricultural homecoming particularly suffers from arriving so soon after The Levelling, compared to which it seems both familiar and flimsier. The minute protagonist Alice (Ruth Wilson) re-enters her family’s dilapidated farmhouse on the Moors, we again sense major work needs doing. Her time and attention will subsequently be split between wayward livestock, a bluff brother (Mark Stanley) plotting to sell the land, and a raft of phantoms in flashbacks. The most looming of these: the siblings’ just-deceased father (Sean Bean), whose presence suggests Alice has returned to confront some lingering childhood trauma.

That process ensures Dark River emerges as Barnard’s most explicitly feminist work yet, centred on a woman determined to fix up a property in the face of masculine indifference or aggression, and thereby fix up herself. The director has a fierce ally in the begrimed Wilson, whose harassed gaze and air imply someone with a hundred more sheep to dip before sundown. “Your mother were a hard-nosed bitch an’ all,” jeers an auction-house cowpoke, and this director-star combo clearly intends to reclaim that insult as a badge of honour. Yet Alice’s headstrong progress towards something like independence is undermined by Barnard’s shakiest screenplay to date.

Narratively, Dark River feels both underdeveloped and overwrought, its mystery trauma guessable the first time Ghost Dad Bean hovers a beat too long in a bedroom doorway. Much of the supporting characterisation is similarly spectral. Set against God’s Own Country’s subtly shaded Yorkshiremen, Stanley’s Joe is an arrant bastard, slashing and burning rather than putting in the physical and emotional labour required to rebuild – yet Barnard is heavily reliant on his tantrums to seize drifting viewer attention. A wordless inter-sibling coda proves far more effective, but also a reminder of what might have been elsewhere.

Barnard’s acclaimed first features positioned her as an industry figurehead overnight, which perhaps explains why her third film feels so rushed: these cramped ninety minutes have no time to notice the scenery, and are caught straining to make the accidental death of a day player tragic. (Even then, the fallout hardly convinces.) It’s not Barnard’s fault that Dark River rolls in behind two bar-raising films in a similar field; yet it was entirely her call to lay hackneyed thunderclaps over her plot’s more melodramatic troughs. Fingers crossed she’ll get back on track – this time out, her realism feels oddly, disappointingly inorganic.

Anticipation: The third feature from the director of The Arbor and The Selfish Giant. 3
Enjoyment: Plenty of intrigue, paid off in bleak shrugs. 3
In retrospect: A muddy misstep from an otherwise notable talent. 2

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