Great filmmakers remember that cinema is a visual medium, that you never say something with dialogue when you can show it with an image.
That’s how Clio Barnard tells the story of “Dark River,” a quiet, tense and beautiful tale of brothers and sisters and abuse set in Yorkshire sheep country.
Maybe it was the thick, subtitles-worthy accents that she knew wouldn’t travel well, or maybe, just a couple of features into her writing/directing career she’s already approaching greatness, but Barnard lets the setting, the rhythms of a hard life on the farm and her actors’ faces do most of the talking here.
And the movie’s richer for it.
When you’ve cast the formidable Ruth Wilson as your lead, you’ve put your visual storytelling into the best possible hands. And eyes. Wilson, of “Saving Mr. Banks” and TV’s “The Affair,” has a scalded quality about her, eyes that carry pain, disappointment and scars. She is at her working class earthiest as Alice, a sheep shearer who learns her father has died.
She’s a ways from home, “traveling the circuit” as sheep shearers do. And while her colleagues and employer can see she’s upset, she’s not crying. This is deeper than that.
Wilson, with just a look in her eye, gives away Alice’s past. She was abused by the old man and is haunted by him still.
Packing her ancient Land Rover and rumbling home only makes the flashbacks (also wordless) more frequent and more damning. He (Sean Bean) kept after her, all during her teen years. She left the family farm 15 years before.
Now, she’s going back to take over. “He promised it’me,” she declares. The old man and her part-time truck-driver brother let the place go. She makes her intentions to the tenant land trust that controls it known, moves in and proceeds to “get the place sorted.” Wilson’s ease around sheep, shearing and gutting a rabbit for dinner underline the practical woman Alice is.
But there’s still brother Joe (Mark Stanley) to contend with. Their relationship is complex, brittle and bitter. He resented her leaving. He is stubborn. He drinks. He has let the ancient stone walls fall to ruin and let the sheep go to “skin and bone.” H still won’t let her have fields cut for silage. Beautiful, now-rare wildflowers, insects, “voles,” all sorts of wildlife would be lost, he says. He won’t kill the rats in the barn because a family of owls have moved in there.
Their war of wills — alternately testy and tender, riven by flashbacks of the relationship they once shared — underscores “Dark River.” And in every corner of the weather-worn farm and farmhouse, Alice sees the old man, what he did to her. She can’t even make herself go upstairs, where the real horrors lay.
Barnard intercuts scenes of Alice taking care of farm business — trying to train the sheep dog her brother once bought but never made useful, doing what she knows is right even though she knows she’s risking another tirade from Joe — with the missing bits of Alice’s past.
She had a beau there. He’s still around. The locals her dad’s age are quick to judge her for her absence, even at the funeral.
But when she asks, “Did he suffer?” she seems satisfied with the answer “Yes.”
Wilson lets us see the pain and injust shame with just her eyes, her history on this land that no number of cleansing dips in the waterfall can wash away.
Barnard’s spare script manages to give just a hint of Britain’s complex farmland ownership arrangements and the pressures on such land, pressures which play into the sister/brother struggle.
She lets the grey skies and rock-strewn landscape explain why Alice is so hellbent on keeping the farm and mending her relationship with Joe, even if she can only count on him to do the wrong thing as she strives to “get it back to ‘ow it’were when Mum and Dad were running it.”
Mostly, though, Barnard wisely just leaves this in the hands of the actors, letting Wilson ache for some sense of redemption and wince at every bad association that the farm conjures up, and having Stanley (“Game of Thrones”) masterfully conjure a difficult relationship and the damage it did Joe, too, something he manages with body language and a mercurial rage that is both frightening and real.
That drama and the unsentimental way she and Alice view this picturesque but hard land and the alternately callous and quaint sheep farming done there lift “Dark River.” It’s no mere indie summer sleeper, it’s worth tracking down. And Barnard is no mere novice feature director (She also made “The Selfish Giant”). Her canny grasp of psychology, story and telling that story with faces and images make her a British director to watch.
MPAA Rating: unrated, violence, sexual situations, profanity
Cast: Ruth Wilson, Sean Bean, Mark Stanley
Credits: Written and directed by Clio Barnard. A FilmRise release.
Running time: 1:29