Clio Barnard’s follow-up to the brilliant The Selfish Giant, is the psychological drama Dark River, which deals with the effects of post traumatic stress disorder, the long-lasting effects of abuse and the complexities of a relationship between siblings. Following the death of her father, Alice (Ruth Wilson) returns home to Yorkshire for the first time in 15 years to claim the tenancy of the family farm she believes is rightfully hers.
Once there, she encounters older brother Joe (Mark Stanley), a man she barely recognizes. Joe is thrown by Alice’s sudden arrival, angered by her claim and finds her presence increasingly impossible to deal with. Battling to regain control in a fragile situation, Alice must confront traumatic memories to find a way to restore the farm to its former glory (ironically we discover that it was Alice’s mother and grandmother that used to run the farm back it is heyday).
Although the narrative is clichéd and predictable, the film is saved by Ruth Wilson’s electrifying performance as the abuse survivor Alice. Alice’s body language around her brother helps to say so much even though their conversation between one and another is quite civil.
When she first arrives back at the farm, there is this safe distance between the two of them. They seem cautious to approach one and another, as if worried about invading the space of the other person. Wilson’s facial expressions indicate how her character is struggling to contain her anxiety, distress and anger, her mouth occasionally twitching and her eyes refusing to meet her brother’s.
Alice struggles with going inside the farm-house, especially going upstairs to her old bedroom, which is still decorate like it was fifteen years ago. Her reaction to being in the house shows us a woman who is on the brink of having a mental breakdown, like she’s circling the edge of sanity, and any second she will topple off and be consumed by her depression and helplessness. Wilson’s face and body language give us access to the wounded and unhappy girl who grew up there.
In one brilliant scene, where Alice goes to smoke out the rats than have invaded her home, she struggles to stay within the house for a long period of time. Eventually she becomes more and more frantic until she can’t contain her disgust, fear and pain any longer, fleeing. Alice is torn by a sense of responsibility for the farm, her brother seems to be unable to turn in a profit and keep the farm in good shape, so it is left to Alice to do. The viewer can clearly see the internal struggle of the character through Wilson’s performance, which manages to capture the complex history of this character and the abuse she has encountered.
Wilson’s performance is powerful and moving, because she manages to contain such raw emotion within her expressions. She manages to say so much with her eyes. Through her performance, the audience manage to see a woman who is still suffering and having to face her demons. It is a performance that somehow outshines the film which feels a tad too predictable and rushed with its climax, still Wilson manages to hold it together and Dark River is worth seeking out for her performance alone.
Ruth Wilson remains one of the most talented and underrated actresses working in the British film industry, and continues to impress with every performance she delivers. Hopefully we see her and Barnard team up again, because they certainly work well together.