She’s got armfuls of good reviews and her films have opened at Cannes, but it still feels like people don’t recognise how good Clio Barnard is. Among her peers, Andrea Arnold is the heir apparent of social realist cinema, Ben Wheatley has the genre fans in his corner and Peter Strickland stands out through sheer strangeness – yet I’d still place Barnard’s The Arbor above all of them as the greatest British film of the last decade. Arrow’s Blu-Ray of her latest picture Dark River offers an opportunity to take stock of her career so far and remind ourselves what sets Barnard apart from the pack, even if the film itself isn’t her best work.
All of Barnard’s films so far have been adaptations, albeit adaptations free enough to make Lynne Ramsay look like a purist. Dark River is no exception. It’s based loosely on Rose Tremain’s novel Trespass, which I haven’t read, and after reading reviews I’m still not clear what exactly Barnard has taken from Tremain’s book. In Barnard’s previous films there was a clear motivation for transforming the source material; The Arbor brings the story of Robin Soans’s 2000 documentary play A State Affair up to the present day, while The Selfish Giant is a loose modern-dress version of Oscar Wilde’s short story. Without reading Trespass, I’m not certain why Barnard appears to have cut out half the novel’s plot, relocated the action from France to England and removed one late, important plot twist.
Perhaps the reason why I’m puzzled by this is because the story of Dark River, as it stands, doesn’t seem to have enough unique elements to justify paying for the rights to the novel. Through no fault of her own, Barnard has ended up with an almost identical plot to last year’s The Levelling, another film by a British director about a young woman returning to her family farm in the wake of a bereavement and finding it financially destitute and full of unhappy memories. I found Hope Dickson Leach’s debut tougher and more thematically focused, but Barnard’s film has the drop on it in a few areas.
Most obviously, it showcases Barnard’s ability to subtly shift moods. For all none of her films to date have been cheery stories none of them feel as robotically, schematically bleak as most British social realist dramas do. When I think back to The Selfish Giant I think of the harrowing conclusion and I also think of the ramshackle joy of the horse-and-cart races, both snugly coexisting in the same narrative. Dark River is a more controlled, focused narrative than Barnard’s other two films, but it has something of the same tonal polyphony. Bitter rows and animal deaths take place in sunny, pastoral fields, while the inky, rumbling blackness of the titular river becomes a lost idyll for the film’s heroine Alice.
Alice is played in flashbacks by Esme Creed-Miles and in the main body of the film by Ruth Wilson, both of whom are extremely good. Quite aside from her emotive power (and sheep-shearing skills!) Wilson deserves credit for pulling off a flawless West Yorkshire accent, one that doesn’t sound affected when placed alongside natives like Sean Bean and Mark Stanley, the latter of whom comes close to stealing the whole film as Alice’s violent, troubled brother Joe. As for Bean, his role promises something to match his extraordinary recent television work for Jimmy McGovern (Broken) and Tony Grisoni (Red Riding), but it seems to have been cut down too much in the edit. Furthering this suspicion, the end credits mention a role for Una McNulty, who doesn’t appear in the final cut at all.
Despite these problems, Dark River is a visually striking film that’s confident enough to make you forget the risks Barnard is taking here. It is, after all, her most plot-driven film to date, and her first to feature big-name actors. She appears totally unfazed by both of these challenges, enough to make me suspect Dark River‘s weaknesses will be seen as a stumble in her career rather than a fall. There are signs, certainly, that this new wave of British rural drama might already be developing its own cliches: the farm full of dark family secrets, the townie-baiting scenes of animal slaughter. But Dark River also contains some truly refreshing, unique material, from the haunting underwater footage to PJ Harvey’s plaintive rendition of the English folk song ‘An Acre of Land’, which begins and ends the film.