Movie Review: ‘Dark River’: A Sheep-Farm Murder Ballad

By Mark Jackson, Epoch Times
June 25, 2018 Updated: June 25, 2018

| Drama, Mystery, Thriller | June 29, 2018 (USA)

Alice (Ruth Wilson) grew up on a Northern Yorkshire sheep farm. Now, she’s seeing the world via the international sheep-shearer circuit—lots of sweating, bleating, b-a-a-a-h-ing, and cascading wool.

Then, news that her father (Sean Bean of “The Lord of the Rings”) has gone to meet his maker. Home she goes, 15 years after fleeing the run-down mud pit of a farm, where her older brother Joe (Mark Stanley), who’s been holding down the fort all the while, resents the heck out of her prodigal-daughter return. Even more vehemently, he resents her attempting to claim the land that has been bequeathed to her.

Joe (Mark Stanley) and Alice (Ruth Wilson) as feuding siblings in “Dark River.” (TIFF/Protagonist Pictures)

It’s a sibling rivalry outstripped only by Cain and Abel. Joe’s let the walls fall in and the sheep go ragged. He refuses to kill barn rats because an owl family has taken up residence. He won’t let Alice cut the fields because he’s grown to cherish nature and can quote the exact numbers (in thousands) of insects, mice, voles, and spiders that would lose their homes in the fields.

Almost Needs Subtitles

The thick Yorkshire accents are just about as difficult to understand as French, and yet once the ear acclimatizes, you feel you’re having an authentic foreign experience, being a fly on the wall of a little North Yorkshire slice of sheep farmer existence. You go to auctions, and listen to brother-sister disputes on whether to spray the sheep or dunk them in a shallow well of disinfectant. Joe’s been dunking for 15 years, so they dunk, because Joe’s a big alcoholic, rage-aholic man by now.

We watch Alice talk to the tenant land trust that owns the farm. We watch her rekindle an old flame in a bar. Watch her skin and clean a rabbit for dinner. I doubt very much that it was a politically correct fake movie rabbit, but Alice is so fluidly familiar with the process, one wonders how much actual skinning Ruth Wilson had to do, to learn to make it look so realistic.

One also wonders why on earth Alice would want this gray, perennially cloud-covered, desolate, wind-swept, sheep-bleating, dog-barking existence, haunted as it is by nightmarish, shame-ravaged memories.

The duration of her teen years were poisoned by patriarchal incestuous rape, and no amount of waterfall showers at the local swimming hole can cleanse those memories away. It’s a jarring juxtaposition of “There’s no place like home” and “You can never go home again.”

Spectacular Acting

Director Clio Barnard, having such skilled actors at her disposal, basically just turns them loose and lets them do their thing. Wilson’s fascinating face lets you read her thoughts, and Stanley (“Game of Thrones”) rages masterfully, allowing us to see the subtlety of how he himself was damaged, and where the source of his drinking lies.

Alice (Ruth Wilson) in “Dark River.” (TIFF/Protagonist Pictures)

The feeling one leaves with is depression. And the question inevitably becomes—why tell such a story? We know the world is full of bad things; we don’t need to be reminded. The main mission of art is to uplift, but if depression’s your thing, and you want a good dose of it, this is surely a beautiful way to go about getting it.

‘Dark River’
Director: Clio Barnard
Starring: Ruth Wilson, Mark Stanley, Shane Attwooll, Dean Andrews, Mike Noble, Esme Creed-Miles, Aiden McCullough, Joe Dempsie, Sean Bean
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
No rating
Release Date: June 29
Rated 3 stars out of 5