The Selfish Giant director Clio Bernard makes her sophomore effort with this timely drama that capitalises on the unexpected rise of the British rural drama of the past year. Dark River stars Luther alum Ruth Wilson as Alice, a broken woman returning to her family’s Yorkshire farm in the wake of her abusive father’s death with designs on leading the homestead toward more prosperous times. Facing up to his own sense of abandonment, however, Alice’s brother Joe (Mark Stanley) sets about securing what he feels is his preferred course for the farm, putting the estranged siblings at loggerheads as they each attempt to exact their own vision for the future, all the while facing up to the demons of their past.
For Wilson, the scene is set for a powerful performance that holds every disparate element of Dark River well and truly in check. Wearing her abuse like an open wound, Wilson offers laser-focused intensity here as the internalised avalanche of emotion hitting her at any time begins to seep perilously close to the surface. It’s no showier a performance than we’ve come to expect from Wilson through her top-of-her-game TV work over the past decade, but it’s a balance between the exterior and internalised that plays strongly in her favour with the material Bernard provides, and it’s a powerful turn without question.
In contrast, Stanley fares less well by virtue of a screenplay that never truly maps out Joe’s motivations bar “because… stubborn?”. He makes for an engaging enough antagonist, and the emotions he plays he works like a fiddle, but less sure-footed writing leaves him on shaky ground for a large duration of the film’s run time, and with only fleeting moments of Sean Bean’s abusive father figure (in the form of flashbacks) to carry attention elsewhere, it’s ultimately a two-hander for which one half of the players is more equipped than the other.
What Bernard lacks on the page, though, she more than makes up for by way of atmosphere and an all-enveloping sense of location. The crisp cold air of the Bell farm is palpable, and Adriano Goldman’s cinematography does its best in balancing the need to purvey that feeling without becoming too showy as to outright dominate proceedings, ditto too for Shame composer Harry Escott, whose score feels at times like the ever-shortening fuse behind Alice’s actions. Though the behind-the-camera work is first rate, however, and Wilson remains the sublime talent she’s always been, there’s a dissatisfaction to Dark River in simply running with too narrow a focus and a story it never affords as much depth as necessary.
Bernard and Wilson strive to out run these issues, and, at times, their efforts do manage as much. It’s with each dramatic pause though that the lack of substantive material begins to show, and the grubby mid-drenched story can’t ever quite match up to the talents of those leading the charge.