Toronto 2017: Clio Barnard’s Dark River

On Film / The Daily — Sep 17, 2017

“Clio Barnard is the fiercely intelligent, visually inventive and innovative film-maker who gave us the brilliant docu-hybrid The Arbor and then The Selfish Giant, an inspired interpretation of Oscar Wilde set in Bradford,” begins the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw. “Her third feature, Dark River, is never anything other than acute and sensitive, with some very good actors giving well directed performances. But for all this movie’s qualities, it is a British social-realist picture in a well-understood idiom which perhaps doesn’t quite give us the shock of the new that her previous films delivered.”

“Barnard’s latest sees the erstwhile video artist settling into her considerable skills as a straight-ahead storyteller,” writes Variety’s Guy Lodge.Dark River credits Rose Tremain’s acclaimed 2010 novel Trespass as its inspiration: A story of familial and class conflict in rural France, it has undergone a drastic geographic and sociopolitical makeover. What remains from the source is an unsparing view of rancorous sibling rivalry, with estranged love and intimate hate pushed to such extremes by circumstance that they’re no longer distinguishable.”

“Alice (Ruth Wilson) has spent fifteen years drifting and working as a shearer,” explains Justin Chang in the Los Angeles Times. “Once she learns of her dad’s passing, she immediately returns home to claim tenancy of her family’s small farm, to which she believes she is entitled, although her rough, ill-tempered brother, Joe (Mark Stanley), obviously has different ideas in mind. . . . Dark River is both a ferocious drama of sibling animus—beautifully enacted by Wilson and Stanley—and a harrowing chronicle of abuse.”

Dark River ultimately amounts to less than the sum of its parts, weighed down by its unfocused style and unevenly paced narrative reveal,” finds Alysia Urrutia, writing for Cinema Scope. “The mishandled flashbacks and cheaply shocking apparitions seem to be at odds with the film’s more nuanced sensibilities; the combination of slow and artful camerawork with messy, lukewarm thrills doesn’t work in this case, culminating in a less than gratifying—not to mention unnecessarily drastic—finale.”

But at CineVue, Daniel Green argues that “Dark River expands upon the themes of childhood kinship central to The Selfish Giant, whilst at the same time serving as a condemnation of the historic exploitation and mismanagement of rural England’s once-thriving agricultural heartland. . . . Sumptuously shot by Brazilian cinematographer Adriano Goldman (whose previous credits include Cary Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre) and edited by longtime Barnard collaborator Nick Fenton, Dark River goes some way towards further cementing its director as the spiritual heir to social realist master Ken Loach. Where Barnard differentiates herself, however, is in her dedication to exploring both the inner and outer-workings of her beleaguered characters.”

“Ultimately,” writes Leslie Felperin in the Hollywood Reporter, “this is Wilson's film and she owns it with a performance rich in psychological subtlety that simultaneously projects ferocity and vulnerability.” More from Vassilis Economou (Cineuropa) and Fionnuala Halligan (Screen). Interviews with Barnard: Charles Gant (Screen), Lyra H. (Women and Hollywood), and Tiffany Pritchard (Filmmaker).

Update: “The entire final section rings false, with its characters and twists registering as ideas and devices used to maximize dramatic impact to no avail,” finds C. J. Prince at the Film Stage. “It comes as a surprise to see Barnard—whose last film felt so natural in its look at poverty, childhood, and companionship—so out of her depth here, but it’s likely the result of navigating trickier material. With such a simple approach to heavy subject matter, Barnard creates a distancing effect that reveals the feebleness of her screenplay and direction. It’s a major disappointment from a filmmaker who so quickly established herself as one of the more exciting voices working today, so here’s hoping that Dark River represents an outlier in her career rather than a new standard.”

Updates, 9/18:Dark River begins rather heavy-handedly with Alice returning to her childhood home and letting every object trigger a traumatic flashback,” writes Marshall Shaffer for Vague Visages. “It portends a brutal experience, but Barnard quickly reins in her style and creates a vivid, haunting portrait of how Alice’s past continues to hold sway in her present.”

Talking with Barnard for Cineuropa, Vassilis Economou asks her about those flashbacks: “As we were talking to psychotherapists and scientists who deal with survivors, they mentioned a difference between the memories that we involuntarily recall and the intrusive ones. I was trying to recreate the memories that are intruding. It’s not that the heroine doesn’t remember; she knows, but when the memories come back and are so vivid, she doesn’t have any other choice.”

Update, 10/9: For Oliver Lyttelton at the Playlist, “as far as the Sam-Shepard-in-the-Dales psychodrama of the story itself, it too feels a bit recycled somehow. Brushing against cliche and heading towards a destination that, like all tragedy is inevitable, it never feels particularly interesting to get to. The idea of a film examining the ripples of trauma later in life is a great one, but the story being told here can’t support it as well as the form.”

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