Dark River [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray ALL - America - FilmRise
Review written by and copyright: Robert Segedy (18th April 2019).
The Film

The title of this film was taken from a Ted Hughes poem, but the source material is a novel entitled "Trespass" by Rose Tremain. The setting is rural Yorkshire and talk about the perfect setting for the film, the rainy farmlands of Yorkshire matches the brooding storyline. Alice (Ruth Wilson) is a woman with a past that haunts her daily; she travels across the countryside shearing sheep with a group of other journeymen, but now after fifteen years of being away, word has reached her that her father has died. Alice plans on returning home and claiming the farm for her own, but there is the issue of her brother Joe (Mark Stanley) who has stayed behind and took care of their ailing father Richard (Sean Bean). Alice returns to her childhood home, but is shocked at the abysmal conditions that have overtaken the place. Fences are in sore need of mending, the sheep need some attention immediately, and rats have invaded the house and sheds. And there is the matter of the ghosts that linger in Alice’s head: she regularly experiences the past invading the present and it is extremely unsettling. Visions of both her father and of herself as a young girl are constantly interrupting the day and her anxiety at night is palatable. Alice has not realized that simply because her tormentor is finally dead, her issues are alive and well inside of her head.

Barnard is extremely good at showing damaged people at their worst behavior. Joe is a sour middle aged man that is unnerved by the sudden appearance of his sister. Joe doesn’t really enjoy expressing his feelings in words either. One night, he gets drunk and you can see the meanness in his eyes as the rage builds and as he slowly begins to destroy the kitchen of the house. However that isn’t enough as Joe makes his way outside and begins pouring gasoline on his sister’s range rover; he is fumbling with a lighter when Alice finally confronts him and the two of them start fighting. Alice manages to protect herself with a pair of cooking shears and Joe backs off. The police come and take him away. Things are not going to improve from here.

I liked how director Clio Barnard showed us nature as a powerful force; the clouds gather overhead in a dark mass, the animals huddle against a wall as the rain pours down, there is no overestimation of nature as a contending character at the farm. We are shown moments of ethereal beauty such as the waterfall where Alice heads to swim, seeking solitude and comfort; this is a place where many memories were made; a stolen kiss from a fellow teenager named Spider, an argument between brother and sister, and eventually the brutal death of an usurper from the bank come to claim what is now his.

The subject of incest is rarely dealt with in the majority of films. The guilt that gnaws at Alice is never ending. She tosses and turns in her sleep as flashbacks invade her mind. As the survivor of prolonged sexual abuse from her father, Alice was given many mixed messages regarding her self-esteem, her own sexuality, and her role in the abuse. One scene shows her lying in wait, her eyes darting to the door at the sound of every footstep; is he coming now? If not now, when? Am I an active participate in my own abuse? Is it ultimately my fault that my own father abuses me? Eventually Alice gets up and goes and knocks on the man’s bedroom door; why torture yourself with waiting for what is inevitable, it is easier to surrender yourself and do it on your own terms than being subjected to a passive role. Many viewers will be uncomfortable with Barnard’s subject matter but it is dealt with in a mature thought provoking nature and the director presents her main character as a strong woman instead of a typical victim. Later in the film, Alice goes to the pub where she pounds down the shots. She is anticipating something, a physical encounter with a stranger that results more in horror than release as Alice is once again subjected to auditory hallucinations. How does one control one’s inner demons without destroying yourself? Barnard offers no easy answers as she merely records the emptiness of such physical encounters.

The dialogue in the film is stunted for the most part; communication does not happen easily and even between the siblings there is a constant tension. Alice applies for tenant-ship of the farm and that was when I realized that the siblings didn’t even own the farm, but were some type of sharecropper that merely rented the property from the bank. Joe retaliates by applying for stewardship of the place as well because he is determined not to allow his sister to have the upper hand. There was a telling scene where the two were discussing whether to cut the fields back. Alice was arguing in favor of having it all cut back for the good of the herd, but Joe comments that “when you cut for silage, you end up killing everything that lives underneath it.” He then goes on to explain that “in one acre of hay meadow, you have 400 million insects, 600 million mites, a million spiders, burnet moths, butterflies, bees, voles, shrews.” This dialogue implies that Joe is a thinking man, that he has contemplated the bigger picture of life on the farm, possibly far more than Alice has. Alice has good intentions of cleaning the place up, but perhaps Joe understands man’s role in Nature better than Alice does.

The two continue to clash throughout the film and a man from the bank comes to see Joe while Alice is out; a deal is arranged where the bank will approve Joe’s application and then he can sell the entire track of land to a developer. A man from the bank comes to see both of them; judgement has been passed and Alice knows that her dreams have been dashed. Joe still doesn’t understand Alice’s motives. During an argument, Joe tells Alice that she is scared all the time; he doesn’t know what Alice is feeling inside. They struggle and Joe pushes Alice to the ground where she strikes her head on a paving stone. Joe carries her inside and places her in her old bed; when Alice comes to her head is a mix of memories and hallucinations. She sees her father sitting at the end of the bed instead of Joe. Finally the two talk and Joe asks Alice why did she go to their father willingly. Why did you not say no to him? “I were a child” replies Alice. She then asks Joe: “Why didn’t you stop him?” Joe has no response to the question asked and his face is a mask of pain.

When the new tenant arrives at the farm and starts putting Alice’s things into a truck, she loses control. The man’s dog gets loose from his lead and he kills one of the sheep; Alice is beyond words now. Only action will suffice. She grabs Joe’s shotgun and makes for the woods meaning to shoot the dog, but then another hallucination overtakes her and she sees her father instead of the tenant. She shoots and kills the man. Later after composing herself, she takes his body into the water of the falls and releases it underwater. This shot mirrors an earlier shot from the beginning of the film when Alice first arrives to swim. Alice is heartbroken and damaged beyond repair; she curls up in the field while rain falls down on her face. Meanwhile the police come to the house and arrest Joe without incident. It is apparent that he will take the fall for his sister’s actions. He will do the prison time as a penance for not stopping the father from his abuse. The final scene of the movie is a memory of the siblings from an earlier time; they walk away from the camera and across the field.

"Dark River" is a serious piece of filmmaking and I was deeply moved by the story of abuse and Alice’s struggle to recover. There are a number of beautiful shots throughout the film and the farm and nature are equal characters in the plot. Highly recommended.

Video

Presented in widescreen 1.85:1 HD 1080p 24/fps using AVC MPEG-4 compression. The camera set ups are simple and are not considered flashy in order to let the story be told correctly. The use of flashbacks and auditory hallucinations are very impressive as we experience what Alice is seeing in the moment. Cinematography by Adriano Goldman was precise and well executed.

Audio

Two audio options are included in English Dolby Digital 5.1 surround and English Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo. The use of subtitles was very helpful because the two characters have very heavy accents and I would not have been able to understand the issues at play. There is a moving theme song performed by P.J. Harvey, but otherwise the environmental sounds of the sheep, the wind in the trees, the sound of the waterfall is strongly represented and helps the viewer understand the isolation of living on the farm. Subtitles are included in English for the hearing impaired.

Extras

A single extra is included on this disc, the film's original theatrical trailer (2:04).

Packaging

Comes packaged in a standard Blu-ray case.

Overall

The Film: A Video: A Audio: A Extras: D- Overall: B

 


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