Monday, June 25, 2018

Clio Barnard’s Dark River

If you remember your King Lear, you understand the problems presented by an indivisible estate and multiple heirs. That is sort of true of Rose Tremain’s Trespass, but it will be hard to recognize her book in the film that it inspired. Clio Barnard’s adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Selfish Giant was more faithful than her take on Tremain’s novel—and that’s saying something. However, she remains true to her uncompromising vision and exacting aesthetics throughout Dark River (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

For fifteen years, Alice Bell has drifted from farm to farm, primarily working with sheep. She has scrupulously avoided her father’s tenant farm, for reasons we soon guess. However, she finally returns after his death (from a prolonged illness), to claim the farm she believes to be her right, both by birth and as compensation. Of course, that does not sit well with her brother Joe, who has tended the farm, quite poorly, during their father’s slow decline.

As a result, the Bell sibling reunion quickly goes from awkward to downright hostile. At the best of times, they carry on in a cold war footing, bitterly arguing over every farming strategy. However, the potential for violence is always palpable.

Ruth Wilson’s performance as the deeply wounded Alice Bell is harrowingly intense (it also looks like she really learned how to shear sheep). You feel for her keenly, but you’d also want to keep her at arm’s length. That goes quadruple for Mark Stanley’s loutish Joe Bell, but he is not a caricature either. Arguably, his grievances are just as legitimate as hers. In fact, the tragedy of this film is their complete inability to communicate.

Sean Bean gives the film further star-power, representing something of a departure from Barnard’s previous films. In this case, he plays the father, Richard Bell, who is already dead before the picture even starts—possibly a new record for his characters’ early deaths. However, his presence lingers, either as toxic memories or perhaps as a genuine ghost. Nevertheless, the revelation regarding his abuse is sort of a lazy fallback—honestly, these days, it is more surprising when fathers are not molesting their children in socially conscious indie films.

In a great irony (one Barnard wisely resists driving into the ground), the Bell Siblings happen to be fighting over a lease rather than a deed. You do not need to be an agricultural economist to surmise Yorkshire probably does not have a competitive or comparative advantage when it comes farming and livestock. Frankly, that understanding makes the film even more depressing. Yet, it is always invigorating to thesps like Wilson and Stanley at the top of their game. Recommended for admirers Spartan British working-class dramas, such as those by Andrea Arnold, Dark River opens this Friday (6/29) in New York, at the Village East.