Film Review: Dark River

Directed by: Clio Barnard; Runtime: 90 minutes
Grade: D+

Most people who like to watch movies have a small collection of titles that they have waiting for when they're "in the mood", ones that are of a deliberately bleak, harsh nature that aren't exactly ideal for popping in and enjoying on a whim. Had Dark River achieved in what it sets out to do, I would've recommended lumping it into that category, largely because of how the material ventures into the territory of physical abuse and unrestrained sibling rivalry. Emotionally-charged performances and gritty visual composition against a decaying farmhouse landscape lend rawness to this tale of sibling rivalry and guilt, but the content's so heavy -- and heavy-handed -- that it yields an unpleasant drama without rewards or virtues to counterbalance it, relying on the intensity of its coarseness for substance.

Upon learning about the death of her father, Alice makes the trip back to her childhood village after staying away for a decade and a half, during which she's become an adept caregiver and shearer of sheep; guess she'd be considered something of a shepherd. The home from her youth sits on the edge of a prototypical British farm, not exactly beautiful under bucolic standards but appealing in its own right. There, she plans on asserting her claim for tenancy of the farm, claiming what she believes rightfully belongs to her, but she's met with resistance by her rough-hewn brother, Joe, whose skill and knowledge with the farm are clearly lacking. As they await a verdict from the higher-ups, the pair butt heads in more ways than one, while Alice copes with haunting memories of how her father treated her.

The pluckiness of Ruth Wilson's portrayal of Alice gives one hope at the beginning of Dark River, depicting her as a self-sufficient and determined woman in a heavily male industry, which sets her up to be a powerful force leading into discussions about whether she'll be taking over her father's farm. That isn't exactly the intention of the film, though, as the story quickly throws her into situations that she cannot feasibly cope with due to the circumstances, hinged on the bullish nature of her brother and the machinations of the agencies responsible for deciding the farm's fate. It becomes more of a display of her suffering than her willpower against tough situations, especially once the darkness of her abused past starts to factor into her mental state. Compelling elements of family turmoil and psychological damage are wrangled into the narrative, but it's not interested in Alice conquering them.

Instead, Dark River pushes further with the dramatics of the situation, escalating the grimness as legal scheming and threats of violence make the story, an adaptation of a novel by Rose Tremain, more unpleasant and infuriating to watch than enriching. With Sean Bean in the role as a father in flashbacks -- he's already a "dead" character before he even appears! -- the film cuts from current-era complications of cattle disagreements and sibling hostility to the escalating toxicity of Alice's home life when she was a young teen or pre-teen, back and forth. Clio Barnard's navigation of the themes involved with what's being depicted are both uncomfortable and, for the most part, lacking the purpose necessary to justify that kind of viewing discomfort. Sympathizing with Alice isn't difficult; however, understanding why we're being subjected to it doesn't come across so easily.

Dark River exasperates far before its ending, but the harrowing final act really makes it tough to take much of worth away from what happens around Alice. That's partly because of the muddied structure of its ideas, but it's mostly due to it being hard to believe that certain administrative decisions would be allowed to progress in light of the circumstances, revealing the story's agenda of going to as dark of a place as it can regardless of practicality. The boundaries built up by parables about grief, guilt, and -- most importantly -- redemption get tested here, and those who've created this one don't realize that they've pushed further than what they can withstand before starting to reconcile the emotive issues. Dark River doesn't have enough redeeming value to be worth the effort needed to watch it in any mood.

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