Were it not crucial to Dark River’s sense of realism that it retain patches of dialogue — sometimes sparse, sometimes desperately overlapping — Clio Barnard’s psychological drama could have worked without words at all. Part of this stems from the fact that the story is fairly rote, as Alice (Ruth Wilson) returns home to the family farm after the death of her father and is forced to unearth the familial traumas that she has tried to keep buried. But it’s more to do with how superbly writer and director Barnard has tied it all together. Ghosts flash in and out of Alice’s vision as easily as the living, and a recurring motif of water — Alice’s swimming; emotional highs accompanied by torrential rain — seems to drown the characters rather than wash their baggage away.
It’s in Alice’s battle with her brother Joe (Mark Stanley) that the film is at its most compelling. He’s reluctant to hand over the land, given the fact that he’s been taking care of it (and their father) for a decade and a half in her absence, and Wilson and Stanley swing from tenderness to rage without making either seem forced — or at all predictable. As the latter emotion inevitably builds, Dark River loses some of its certainty to the demands of telling a story with a beginning, middle, and end, but the final scene, which relies almost entirely on expressions rather than words, is almost enough to make up for it.
Directed by Clio Barnard
Opens June 29, Village East Cinema
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