Dark River (UK 2017)

dark river

Ruth Wilson in Clio Barnard’s ‘Dark River’ (2017)

As a local, I had always slightly resisted the name-change that accompanied Cornerhouse Manchester’s location move, even though it was to a fantastic and purpose-built modern venue, integrating theatre, cinema and art gallery.  Increasingly, however, I’ve had to admit that even the cinema alone has a right to call itself HOME, justified by the range of films showing and their frequent special events; they make me, happily, more of a stranger in my own.

The latest addition to these experiences was a screening, on Friday night, of Clio Barnard’s new film, Dark River (2017).  The film was accompanied by a Q&A, chaired by Mia Bays of Bird’s Eye View, with Barnard and her producer (on this and for The Selfish Giant (2013)), Lila Rawlings.

The film itself is a portrayal of a sibling relationship, one existing under the shadow of traumatic past events.  Avoiding any more detail, it is enough to say that this is a powerful story of the effects on those who survive abuse and of the complex legacy of secrecy, complicity and passivity that all of those involved are forced to carry with them.  And, also, without attempting a detailed piece of writing on Barnard and her previous films (her work deserves greater contemplation) this is a call to encourage anyone reading to see this film.

Barnard’s first feature, The Arbor (2010), about the life of playwright Andrea Dunbar, was a blend of documentary footage and drama. The film layered real places and people, featuring the Arbor estate in Bradford where Dunbar lived; stylistically, this footage constantly intertwined with staged performance.  Professionals acted out excerpts of her plays on the estate and actors lip-synched to audio-interviews with Dunbar’s friends and family, recalling her struggles and her troubled life. Despite its apparent artificiality and the strange dislocation of words and the person speaking them, or really because of it, those experiences were communicated in powerful, emotional terms. Mark Kermode, in introducing the film for the BFI Player, also commented on the ‘truth’ about memory that emerges through its innovation.

Dark River revolves around traumatic memory and represents it sensitively, sparingly and with great emotional power. The Q&A at HOME raised interesting questions which were answered thoughtfully by Barnard and Rawlings, both passionately engaged with the subject matter as well as the perennial challenges of low-budget filming in Britain. Barnard talked about the experience of working with such intuitive and professional actors in Ruth Wilson and Mark Stanley. Their ability to convey much about a relationship, one which has become wordless through the repression of intolerable feelings, gave her the luxury of being able to strip back the dialogue constantly through the filming. It is a very silent film; Lila Rawlings made a connection the siblings lack of communication and of working within a landscape depicting boundaries. It constructs an unsentimental portrait of this part of the world; Barnard emphasised her commitment to ‘rural realism’ – of her films as engaging with the realities for those who live in these places which can be romanticised in British (English) culture. Place works symbolically in this film, without ever losing touch. Filmed near Skipton, North Yorkshire and around Malham, Barnard, with Adriano Goldman as cinematographer, shoots it spare, rugged and visceral as if seen through its protagonists’ eyes.  Janet’s Foss provided the filming location as the place where Alice can immerse herself under the water – literally and metaphorically. Dark River is part of a disparate, impromptu trilogy, through release timing, with The Levelling (2016) – about a girl returning to her family farm – and God’s Own Country (2017), a love story set in Yorkshire, which represents the countryside as a real world. However, each film has its own very specific qualities onscreen and in the narrative, a validation of the processes at work on each of them and their separate interpretations of ‘rural realism’.

In terms of representing the world of the farming community, I couldn’t help thinking of Far from the Madding Crowd – not just because of the sheep, but because of one point in relation to Thomas Hardy’s stories that I hope Barnard would find sympathetic.  Hardy’s world is a difficult one, of people like Barnard’s characters – struggling, suffering, earning little and understanding their connection to the land in the most difficult way, not just through a superficial love of its beauty. Whilst Rose Tremain’s novel Trespass (2010) directly provided the point of inspiration for this film, it is Bathsheba Everdene who haunts it in the farming scenes at least. Alice (Ruth Wilson) has ambition and competence in what is still a man’s world.  Interesting to place it next to director Thomas Vinterberg’s luxuriant 2015 adaptation of Hardy’s novel of a woman struggling, played very strongly by Carey Mulligan but set in glorious, colour-saturated countryside.[i] Hardy would approve of Barnard’s film, I believe.

This is, though, first and foremost about the central relationships, both those present and non-present, with Sean Bean playing the lost father. It was a lively Q&A (many thanks to Mia Bays) with questions and responses to the film including the soundtrack, the implications of the ending, the representation of the land. Christine Bottomley, who worked with Barnard on The Arbor, was in the audience and commented on the ‘calm space’ that Barnard could create that allowed actors the safety to explore all emotional possibilities. A quality of silence, then, informs her practice as well as her films.  This is certainly visible in the deeply-observed relationships in Dark River. Lila Rawlings – when asked – gave up one key word to characterise Barnard’s work – ‘empathy.’

See here for Tony Earnshaw’s detailed report and interview on the set of the film.

Bird’s Eye View are piloting a scheme to recruit ‘influencers’ (‘BEVIs’) – people willing to champion female-centric films and spread the word, locally and online. The scheme is centred, at first, on HOME (Manchester), Genesis/Curzon Soho/PictureHouse Central (London), Tyneside Cinema (Newcastle), Plymouth Arts Centre.  Influencers will receive free tickets to event screenings, DVDs, subscriptions and money-off codes.  Anyone interested should contact BEV: mail@birds-eye-view.co.uk with the heading ‘BEVI’.

[i] In thinking about realism, this is the same Vinterberg who emerged in the Dogme film movement of the 1990s, with its manifesto establishing rules of aesthetic restraint, and who recently made the excoriating drama The Hunt (2012). His Hardy film, a beautiful adaptation with some strong performances, may be recent but it is arguably less innovative than John Schlesinger’s 1966 treatment of Hardy’s novel, which had Nicholas Roeg as cinematographer.

2 comments

  1. John Hall

    nice to see all the films from last year’s Leeds Film Festival now filtering through. I had intended to see this one too at the Hyde Park but missed it, but did catch it at a recent Q&A at the Square Chapel. Having also seen The Levelling, this time at Home last year, I thought that Dark River suffered by comparison with a film that was very similar in subject matter but a little more subtle overall. Both films dealt with families that had suffered through lack of communication and being a little isolated from the local community, but the lack of communication and, indeed, dialogue from the more recent viewing coupled with a more histrionic storyline let it down in my opinion. The ghost of Sean Bean who drifted into various scenes and drifted out again without having much to say could have been any of the other characters really, and even though Ruth Wilson was at her emoting best the final scene in the prison visit could have done with a little explanation between the siblings as to exactly what was going on. In the Q&A Clio Barnard did explain that they had gradually cut more and more dialogue from this scene to make it stronger. That wasn’t the effect it had on me. There were too many unanswered questions and nobody to answer them.

    • Rona

      Thanks for this. The open-endedness of ‘Dark River’, the silence between the characters, represented the gulf between them for me, that there are no easy answers. However, I completely see your point, and it was reflected in other responses at the time. and it also confirms how two narrative treatments, that might seem superficially similar, can be incredibly different.

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