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Dark River (2017) Blu Ray & DVD (Arrow Academy)

Facing a traumatic past

Ruth Wilson plays Alice Bell, a Yorkshire sheep farmer who returns to her family’s estate after a long absence. She has trouble returning to face the spectre of traumatic experiences at the hands of her now-deceased father (played in flashback by Sean Bean) - but believes that she can claim the right of tenancy to the farm.

However, her own bereaved and clearly psychologically-deteriorating brother Joe (Mark Stanley) harbours resentments related to both Alice’s failure to turn up to their father’s funeral and the fact that she wants to get the place back into shape for her tenancy application to be accepted. When he challenges her for the farm rights so that he can sell it to a local private water company, the stage is set for a violent tragedy.

Watch a trailer:

Well-made gloom porn

This loose adaptation of Rose Tremain’s novel Trespass is one of those moody, but exceptionally well-made, British dramas where expressionistic cloud and fog-strewn landscape shots rule its cinematic language. The minutiae of the struggles of family farming are depicted here in all of their gory misery, from the process of putting down an injured sheep, through the dismal environments of livestock auction houses, through rats scuttling over dimly-lit farmhouse floors, to the gutting of a rabbit by a kitchen sink. Its bleakness is further accentuated by the use of the mournful P. J. Harvey and Harry Escott ballad An Acre of Land during both the opening and closing credits. Not that it’s a story which can be presented in a particularly cheerful manner.

It’s a film worth admiring for its cinematography, direction and performances but, at the same time, it’s hard to imagine who exactly I could wholeheartedly recommend it to. Since it’s an inordinately grim tale of familial abuse and the general shittiness of Yorkshire farming life, you can’t exactly call it entertaining. At the same time, the underlying drama ultimately fails to amount to anything more than presenting Joe as a monster and Alice as a victim who, while occasionally fighting back, remains around her brother despite having previously been subjected to abuse of another kind (sexual) by her father. Frankly, it’s hard to understand why she doesn’t just contrive a death for him via some “farming accident”, thereby killing two birds with one stone and automatically becoming the sole applicant eligible for the tenancy. Okay, so there may be valid and complex reasons why she decides to put up with living on the same farm as him. However, the script and direction here fail to throw sufficient light on them.

Ruth Wilson in Dark River

The real shame here, however, is that the two lead performances hint at depths that aren’t properly explored elsewhere. Ruth Wilson sports a look throughout which lies somewhere between steely determination and being constantly on edge. Her work here imbues a genuinely chilling feeling of a little abused girl now protected behind a strong adult body. Mark Stanley, meanwhile, shifts between full-blown aggressiveness and a sad-eyed undercurrent of regret. We get the resonant impression from his performance that he, too, is a victim in his own way.

The film does end on a slightly redemptive note. However, it isn’t enough to shake the overall impression that it’s all a large dose of artistically-mounted gloom porn rather than the truly explorative piece of work that it might have been.

Runtime: 90 mins

Dir: Clio Barnard

Script: Clio Barnard, based on a novel by Rose Tremain

Starring: Ruth Wilson, Mark Stanley, Sean Bean, Esme Creed-Miles, Aiden McCullogh

DVD Audio-Visual

Those bleak Yorkshire Dales landscape shots look wonderfully painterly here. Sound is pristine but the authentic regional dialogue may be difficult to understand for those not local to the area - in which case the HOH subtitles are your friend.


Director and Cast Interviews

Clio Barnard talks mainly about the research that she carried out prior to filming. She consulted with the charity Wellcome Trust about the relationship between memory and trauma. She found out from one forensic psychologist working for the organisation that around 5% of the female general population are sexually abused by family members during their lifetimes. Herself and Ruth also visited a number of real-life tenant farmers to find out what their lives are like.

Ruth Wilson reveals that she took the lead in the film because she is “looking for male movies with female protagonists”. She also mentions that she had 3 and a half weeks of training on a farm including handling sheep, training a sheepdog, gutting rabbits and learning the Yorkshire accent in order to make her part authentic.

As with Clio and Ruth, Mark Stanley discusses the research and prep that he carried out, including (again) working on a real-life farm for some time as well as speaking to a psychologist about the insomnia and alcoholism with which his on-screen character is afflicted. He also talks about his experiences coming back to North Yorkshire after living in Leeds for so many years and having to get back in tune with how blunt people could be in that part of the world.

Sean Bean (understandably) appears a little uncomfortable and humbled while talking about his role as the sexually abusive father.

Esme Creed-Miles is the real-life daughter of Charlie Creed-Miles and Samantha Morton. She plays the young Alice Bell during the flashbacks. She discusses her experiences working on the film with Aiden McCullogh (who plays the young Joe), Sean Bean and Clio Barnard.

Behind the Scenes

We get some brief footage of the crew filming the livestock auction scene and that fateful climactic action sequence.

The other extras here are a stills gallery, theatrical trailer and enclosed booklet.


This is one movie that, while hardly bad per se, you should definitely watch first before deciding if you want to go ahead and purchase this disc. The extras here are unspectacular but the interviews are worth a watch.

Movie: ☆☆☆

Video: ☆☆☆☆

Audio: ☆☆☆☆

Extras: ☆☆☆

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