Kitchen-sink realism for the 21st century is an apt description of Clio Barnard’s films, hardscrabble dramas of working-class misery. Her quasi-documentary feature-length debut, The Arbor, surveyed the desolate poverty of one of Britain’s roughest council estates, and her follow-up, The Selfish Giant, was a tragic tale of desperately poor kids stealing copper wiring to sell for cash. Her latest, Dark River, follows an itinerant sheep shearer, Alice (Ruth Wilson), who returns home to the family farm where her recently deceased father, Richard (Sean Bean), sexually abused her as a child.
In different hands, the relentlessly dismal subject matter of Barnard’s films could easily occasion a reductive kind of poverty porn, a gratuitously grim tour of some of Britain’s bleakest enclaves, but the director approaches her stories with a haunting intimacy that brings us deep inside her characters’ volatile psyches. Unlike brutally depressing British dramas such as Tim Roth’s The War Zone and Paddy Considine’s Tyrannosaur, which rub the audience’s noses in the hideous crimes of violent men, Dark River is less interested in the psychology of the abuser than the resilience of the abused.
Combining a hard-charging physicality with a melancholy soulfulness, Wilson portrays Alice as a woman whose unresolved trauma has manifested itself as a restless hunger for hard work. Barnard leaves the specifics of Alice’s abuse tastefully vague, focusing instead on her strained relationship with her brother, Joe (Mark Stanley), whom she feels failed to protect her from their father. The two become embroiled in a dispute over control of the family’s bucolic sheep ranch—a squabble which symbolically represents their diverging paths since Alice left home 15 years ago. While she has dealt with her demons by always keeping busy, her brother has sunk into indolence and alcoholism, allowing the farm to gradually fall into disrepair.
The film is punctuated with the eerie grandeur of the Yorkshire countryside, images of foggy moors and vast overcast skies that echo Alice’s profound disquietude. Even scenes of seemingly bucolic manual labor—shepherding, sheep-dipping, shearing wool—are infused with an undercurrent of anxious agitation, often evoked by the film’s subtly disorienting sound design.
Unfortunately, while Barnard so masterfully limns her protagonist’s tortured soul, the brother-sister drama at the center of Dark River remains frustratingly hazy. We understand that Alice and Joe were wrenched apart by their father’s transgressions, but it’s difficult to get a handle on the precise nature and origin of the cleavage. The film’s flashbacks to the siblings in the wake of their father’s abuse of Alice are so oblique that we don’t truly understand their schism until almost the very end of the film, when the siblings simply shout their grievances at each other. Barnard also resolves the narrative with an overwrought set piece in which Alice frantically hunts a feral dog that, thanks to some heavy-handed cross-cutting, we know is supposed to symbolize her father. It’s a crudely frenzied climax to a film that’s otherwise so adept at rendering subtle tectonic shifts of emotion, and it leaves us with a mildly offensive implication: that only violence can heal the wounds of trauma.