Dark River (Blu-ray) [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - Arrow Films
Review written by and copyright: Paul Lewis (30th June 2018).
The Film

Dark River (Clio Barnard, 2018)

Independent British cinema often struggles to break free from the shadows of the likes of Ken Loach, Mike Leigh and the British ‘New Wave’ filmmakers of the 1960s. With her 2013 debut fictional feature film The Selfish Giant, Clio Barnard used her experience making documentaries to deliver a realist ‘regional’ picture that invited comparisons with Ken Loach (especially Kes, 1969) whilst avoiding a slavish emulation of the work of Loach or the British New Wave. Like her contemporary Steve McQueen, Barnard received her training in art school and for a while was associated with the world of art installations in which video played a prominent role, exhibiting both at the Tate Modern and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Her first feature length film was The Arbor in 2010, an experimental documentary about the life of Andrea Dunbar (the writer of Alan Clarke’s Rita, Sue and Bob Too). Barnard has joined a small but distinctive group of fascinating British female filmmakers, alongside Lynne Ramsay and Andrea Arnold. Barnard is also an academic, acting as a Reader in Film Studies at the School of Arts in the University of Kent.

Barnard’s latest film Dark River is, like The Selfish Giant before it, set in Yorkshire. Dark River features Ruth Wilson as Alice Bell, a nomadic sheap shearer who returns to the family farm following the death of her father Richard, played by Sean Bean. Upon her return, Alice comes into conflict with her brother Joe (Mark Stanley), who resents Alice’s belief that after fifteen years of absence, she is entitled to put forward an application for tenancy of the farm to North Moors Water, who own it. Joe puts forward his own competing application for tenancy, bolstered by North Moors Water, who want to use the land on which the farm sits as a development opportunity. Simon Shorecross (William Travis), a representative of the company, suggests that Joe’s application for tenancy will be accepted, and Joe will be offered £100,000 to vacate the farm, enabling North Moors Water to demolish it and offer it for development.

The film’s opening sequence establishes the character of Alice swiftly: sullen, with a ruddy complexion, she equals her male colleagues in the heavy work of shearing sheep. It’s an unglamorous role for Ruth Wilson, her dialogue muttered in a mostly accurate North Yorkshire accent. She has received news of her father’s death and tells a colleague, tersely, ‘Probably not coming back. He promised farm to me’. Alice’s conversations with Joe are equally sharp and condensed. ‘I were contracted…’, she offers when she first sees her brother, beginning an explanation as to her fifteen year absence from the farm. ‘No, you don’t need to chat shit’, he spits back at her. ‘I’m ‘ere now’, she says. ‘What good is that?’, he asks, ‘It’s too late now, innit. He’s gone’. Where Alice’s horizons have expanded, and she has achieved success and acclaim in the field of shearing sheep, Joe has been stuck on the farm taking care of their father and earning a living driving lorries. ‘You’ve seen the world’, he tells Alice. ‘You must have been some places’, she responds. ‘Dover. To pick up spuds’, he says, ‘Most of the time I’ve been grafting here, you know what it’s like’.

Despite his coarse exterior, Joe displays an intuitive relationship with the land that is different to Alice’s more modern approach. Alice has been exposed to the modern business of farming, whereas Joe’s approach is more in tune with the land itself. (This is symbolised in their approach to the sheep: Alice uses a new spray to rid them of parasites, whereas Joe insists on dipping them – despite Alice’s reminders that the chemicals in sheep dip are potentially dangerous to humans.) When Alice speaks to a representative of North Moors Water, a young man named Rowan (Mike Noble), he tells her that her application for tenancy may very well be approved if she completes a few tasks: ‘make a start fixing the building up, maintaining boundaries, dealing with vermin’. (Joe reacts badly to Rowan’s presence, however, telling him to ‘Fuck off with your application. I’ve been grafting on this land since I could walk [….] It’s all fucking assets and lifestyle to you lot, ain’t it?’) Alice begins trying to accommodate Rowan’s conditions of tenancy, laying poison for the rats in the barn. However, Joe stops her, showing her that the barn contains a nest of owls – with fledglings, no less – for whom the poison could prove lethal. Shortly afterwards, Alice tells Joe they should cut the hay field for silage. In response, he shows her the rare fauna, including Shepherd’s Needle, growing amidst the long grass. ‘When you cut it for silage, all you end up doing is killing what’s under it’, he reminds her pointedly, ‘One acre of hay meadow, you’ve got 400 million insects, 600 million mites, 200 million spiders, Burnet moths, butterflies, bees, voles, shrews’. Of course, Joe has a vested interest in preventing Alice’s application for tenancy being successful; but on the other hand, his interest in the plant and animal life on the farm seems utterly sincere. Nevertheless, Alice insists on hiring local labourer Jim (Steve Garti) to cut the hay field and plans to sell some of the lambs in order to pay for it to be done. She does this despite Joe’s command not to (‘It’s too early. I sell ‘em [the lambs] fat’, he says), taking eight of the lambs to market but returning distraught when they sell for next to nothing. This precipitates an outburst from Jim, who rants to Alice that ‘Your mother were a bitch an’ all. He [Alice’s father] should have taught both of you some respect, the soft bastard’.

The film has a strong sense of realism, featuring verite-style photography with a soundtrack that is mostly absent of non-diegetic music. On the other hand, Dark River has fantastical moments, Barnard employing parallel editing, cutting seamlessly between the past and the present, to suggest the extent to which the farm is, for Alice, haunted by her memories of the sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of her father. The film’s depiction of Alice’s memories – the glimpses of her father that she sees in the house, which lead her to avoid the farmhouse entirely and take up roots in the nearby prefab – recalls Clio Barnard’s short film ‘Dark Glass’ (2006), which involves the transition from a garden to the interior of a house that is dominated by ambiguously-presented memories. Alice’s flashbacks are cryptic and seamlessly blended into the diegesis. Upon her first arrival at the farm, she enters the farmhouse and sees what we may presume are her father’s things, including a walking stick. She walks to the staircase and looks with trepidation upstairs. Her father stands at the top. It’s an illusion, of course, but the editing allows these memories, or fantasies, to intrude upon the narrative without breaking the diegesis. Later, fractured flashbacks show her father climbing in young Alice’s bed. Elsewhere, some equally clever symbolic montage is employed in a sequence in which Barnard intercuts shots of Alice gutting and skinning a rabbit she has shot with a scene in which Joe, torn by the pact he has made with North Moors Water, trashes the farmhouse before making the decision to drive Alice away by setting fire to her Land Rover.

Ultimately, these divided siblings are forced to confront their past and the impact of their father’s actions on their lives. The farmhouse is a symbolic space, representative of their shared past. Alice’s hope of running it is, as Joe points out, a pipe dream: ‘How’s it ever gonna work? You’re scared every time you set foot in the fucking door’. On the other hand, Joe doesn’t have the business nous to keep the farm running in the modern cultural climate: ‘He can’t even look after himself, never mind a farm’, Alice spits angrily at one point.


Taking up 27Gb of space on the Blu-ray disc, the presentation of the main feature is in 1080p, using the AVC codec. Dark River is presented in its intended aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and with a running time of 89:37 mins. Shot digitally, the film demonstrates good dynamic range – not quite the equal of material shot on film but close to it – and some good contrast levels, especially in the low light interior scenes taking place in the dingy farmhouse, though there are a number of scenes which are filmed from a darkened interior looking out onto a more brightly lit environment, with the exposure (naturally) balanced on the brighter part of the frame, and in these shots shadow detail is sometimes crushed. This is to be expected, however, given the limitations of digital sensors in comparison with film. Colours are autumnal and earthy – browns and greens – and the photography includes some incredibly beautiful landscapes. This is compressed digital presentation of a digitally shot feature, and the presentation shows no compression-related issues.

For some full-sized screengrabs, please see the bottom of this page. (Click the images to enlarge them.)


The disc presents three audio options: (i) a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track; (ii) a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo track; and (iii) a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 audio descriptive track. Optional English subtitles for the Hard of Hearing are included.

Both the 5.1 track and the stereo track are deep and rich, with a good sense of range. The 5.1 track has more effective sound separation and some haunting use of ambient sound effects, however. The subtitles are accurate and easy to read.


The disc includes:
- Director and Cast Interviews (‘Play All’: 30:30): Clio Barnard (9:17); Ruth Wilson (7:35); Mark Stanley (6:19); Sean Bean (4:41); Esme Creed-Miles (2:39). These are EPK interviews featuring ‘talking heads’ prefaced by questions presented as onscreen titles. The participants talk about the story and some of its themes. Barnard reflects on the financing of the film and the preparations she made before shooting the picture, discussing the casting process in some detail. The actors talk about their characters and how they approached their performances. There are some major plot ‘spoilers’ here, so these are probably best watched after viewing the main feature.

- Behind the Scenes (3:21). Some footage of the shooting of the climax and the market scene is presented here.

- Stills Gallery (0:46).

- Trailer (2:00)


Dark River is a story of a return home that is handled with Gothic intensity by Barnard, a Greek tragedy set on a tenant farm in Yorkshire. All ghost stories are symbolic, but Barnard uses the trappings of a ghost story to construct a narrative in which the past and present bleed into one another. Alice and Joe are like lost lambs, their lives blighted by a trauma that pulls them apart rather than uniting them. The intrusion of modern big business, in the form of the dual representatives of the water company that own the farm, represents a Faustian pact that catalyses Alice and Joe’s animosity towards one another.

The film isn’t without its faults. A subplot involving Alice’s relationship with a local, David (Joe Dempsie), goes largely nowhere though it underscores the tensions that exist between Alice and Joe in the present, and between Alice and her father in the past.

Dark River benefits from some superb photography by Brazilian cinematographer Adriano Goldman, who manages to use his outsider’s perspective on the locales to make the Yorkshire landscape alien and threatening in a manner that aids the story greatly. With Dark River, Barnard foregrounds the fascination with the Yorkshire moors that has surfaced in her earlier work. Far from a rural idyll, the isolation of Alice’s family farm represents something much more sinister. The locations are cold and unpleasant. Alice visits the coast, which is elemental, gulls cawing above and waves crashing against the rocky beach.

Dark River consolidates Barnard’s position as one of Britain’s leading filmmakers. It’s an impressively intense film that both looks backwards to the conventions of British social realism whilst also doing something slightly ‘different’. It’s also photographed beautifully, Goldman displaying a keen eye for interesting compositions and use of light throughout the picture. The Blu-ray contains a solid presentation of the main feature. The contextual material is promotional ‘fluff’ and it would have been nice to have seen a more objective perspective on the film, but nevertheless the interviews help to give the narrative a sense of context. It’s a film which comes with a strong recommendation, and Arrow’s Blu-ray release cannot be faulted.

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