Clio Barnard is on her third feature film, and she’s setting a strong track record. Her 2010 debut, The Arbor, was a semi-documentary depiction of Bradford playwright Andrea Dunbar which synchronised verbatim interviews with Dunbar’s family and neighbours with actors’ performances. The Selfish Giant, her 2013 second feature, follows two Bradford boys as they work for a local scrap dealer and criminal, which changes the relationship between them. Now, Dark River remains in the North and follows Alice (Ruth Wilson) as she returns to her family home, which she has inherited from her recently deceased father (Sean Bean – of course).
One of the perks of being a writer-director is that you have pretty much complete creative control. Barnard makes the most of this by having a sparsely-dialogued script where she knows exactly what she wants to fill the gaps. The story stays simple whilst every theme and emotion is explored in depth and with delicacy. She’s also very fortunate to have a close relationship with her producer of all three films, Tracy O’Riordan, who was present for the Q&A and understands Clio’s vision and how to enable as much of it as possible.
The film’s simple story focuses predominantly on Alice and her brother Joe (Mark Stanley), who currently resides at the house that is now hers. The siblings haven’t seen one another in fifteen years, since Alice left home. Now around 30, both have resentments and troubles which bubble under the surface of every interaction; Joe looked after their father while he was ill, Alice had to leave because of the way their father treated her. It’s not always clear who knows what about the situation, and with such characters it’s very unlikely that they would talk through all their issues and hug at the end. There’s an understanding of human nature and familial relationships that makes the film so compelling.
Of course, these complex and real characters are made by their performers. Wilson and Stanley have an incredible chemistry on screen, and an underlying natural rivalry courses through their performances, a need to prove to the other that they’re an adult now, that they can take care of themselves. Stanley is much more subtle than in the work that most will recognise him from (Grenn in Game of Thrones), which is a testament both to his range and Barnard’s direction. But Ruth Wilson has the meatiest role; we get inside her mind and experience her relationship with the house and her past viscerally alongside her. She a compelling modern rural woman who wants desperately to put the past behind her, but inevitably she must confront it.
The setting has great significance to Alice, but it also helps set the tone of the film. The Yorkshire countryside brings a rural aspect which her previous films didn’t investigate, and with it comes a quietness and space for thought (or an inability to escape from thoughts). It also grants some breathtaking imagery, including a memorable shot of Alice walking across the land with sheep following her through the curves of the hills.
The film has such an emotional weight to it that by the time the screening ended, late on a Monday night, the audience were still processing what they had just watched as we came to the Q&A. Barnard and O’Riordan seemed well-matched sat together; both quiet, considered people with an inclination for reflection. There were no rambling answers, but there were kind acknowledgements of Mark Stanley’s family, who were in attendance, and fond anecdotes of managing sheep throughout the shoot.
When The Yorker asked for Barnard’s advice for young filmmakers today, she said to just make things; make the most of the technological opportunities available today as it’s so much easier to make a film. If you have a hunch, follow it. If it becomes an obsession, you’re onto something.
So what are you waiting for? Maybe you could be sat on stage at the Hyde Park Picture House a few years down the line at Leeds International Film Festival. With any luck, you could make an impression like Clio Barnard has with Dark River.
Dark River will be released nationwide in February 2018. See what else is on at LIFF 31 at LeedsFilmCity.com. Image source: HollywoodReporter.com