A tight shot of a sheep being held down and roughly sheared to the whirr of machinery opens Dark River, a bleak tale of repression and trauma set in the Yorkshire countryside. From the gentle bleating of sheep to the bracing bark of a dog, the everyday sounds that dominate the film’s soundtrack lie in eerie juxtaposition with the silence that hangs between its two main characters.
Ruth Wilson and Mark Stanley deliver mesmerising performances as siblings Alice and Joe as they wrangle with their past and the resentment it has bred between them. Destructive memories shape the lives of these characters, with Sean Bean their shadowy architect. Written with funding from biomedical charity Wellcome Trust, Dark River is a creative exploration of psychological trauma. The wildness and vitality of Yorkshire, shot in bleak but majestic tones by Adriano Goldman, appears to provoke the suppressed darkness to rise to the surface.
Based on the critically acclaimed book Trespass by Rose Tremain, the movie’s relocation to the breathtaking Yorkshire countryside and the challenges of its struggling farmland gives the story a harsh, social realist edge. The hardships of the environment are written on the face of Joe, the brother who is left behind to work the land and care for their ailing father. Played with brooding brilliance by Mark Stanley, Joe is rough, weather-beaten and emotionally fragile. Unable to deal with the trauma of his past, Joe struggles and this is reflected in the state of the farm: dirty, unkempt and on the brink of falling apart.
Meanwhile, Rose, the mysterious sister who escaped this brutal paradise, returns to the farm. Wilson’s Rose is masterfully understated; she appears strong and powerful, but often the burden of her experiences flash across her face. With so much of the film’s emotional power derived from what remains unsaid, its dramatic climax feels a little jarring as we dive towards the final moments. But Harry Escott’s sumptuous score and the exquisite performances draw us in, as what is suppressed finally bursts out into the open.
The performances of Wilson and Stanley as they undulate between anger, sadness and stoicism are utterly captivating and Barnard’s direction allows these moments to linger powerfully as we piece together their shared history. Mesmerising in its intensity, Dark River is a stark warning about the power of the past.
Dark River is released nationwide on 23rd February 2018
Watch the trailer for Dark River here: