Review by Jacquelin Hipes
Alice Bell (Ruth Wilson) leads a quiet life working on a sheep farm in the English countryside. When her father (Sean Bean) dies, however, she chooses to leave the camaraderie of the farm and her co-workers to take over the tenancy he had promised as her inheritance. She hasn’t been to the farm in fifteen years and arrives to find it in a woeful state of disrepair. Alice left home for mysterious reasons; some rooms inspire ominous flashbacks. In her absence it fell to her father and brother Joe (Mark Stanley) to keep the plot of land thriving, a task poorly accomplished.
At first her brother is nowhere in sight. Alice goes about straightening the house and applying with a land agent to have the tenancy legally transferred in her name. When Joe finally does arrive he’s dismayed to see that his sister has attempted to make changes, as well as distraught over her apparent sabotage regarding the tenancy arrangements. With a little time, though, the siblings settle into a truce. This doesn’t settle Alice or her memories of the farm; she’s unable to sleep in the main house and, as the flashbacks occur more frequently, it becomes obvious that something terrible happened under its roof.
An understated performance by Wilson as the daughter suffering from PTSD anchors a film whose dramatics are anything but. Often melodramatic, the various twists and turns in the relationship between Alice and Joe are entirely unsurprising. They are played to such grand effect in Clio Barnard’s script (she also directed) unwarranted by their predictability. It doesn’t help that Wilson and Stanley lack dramatic chemistry. Stanley’s Joe cuts a pathetic figure, more of an obstacle than a sibling for Alice, who offers little in the way of catharsis or illumination.
The rural setting of northern England emerges as a second star alongside Wilson. Barnard likes to linger on the small wonders of nature surrounding the Bell farm, a peaceful counterpoint to the roiling emotions between its occupants. By the time the matters of tenancy and a malicious past come to a head in a somewhat outlandish final development, Alice, Joe, and viewers are all hungering for a bit of peace. There are some heavy topics at play in Dark River, but with the exception of Wilson’s marvelous performance, we’re never allowed to dive much past the surface.