“You can’t go home again,” that age-old chorus of mature disillusionment, at first appears to be the driving current of “Dark River,” a severe, stoic but internally screaming third feature from gifted British writer-director Clio Barnard. Yet as already brittle family relations shatter and scatter across the humble patch of Yorkshire farmland that centers this roiling rural tragedy, the message turns harder still: Perhaps you were never really home at all.
Melding the quiet poetic realism of Barnard’s exquisite “The Selfish Giant” with a higher-key strain of relocated Greek tragedy, “Dark River” isn’t quite as bracing or as unexpected as the director’s previous work — not least because, through no fault of the film’s own, it’s only the latest in a recent boom of comparably styled British farm dramas. Still, there’s scarcely room here for improvement at the level of craft or performance; in particular, it’s gratifying to see leading lady Ruth Wilson headlining a big-screen vehicle worthy of her flinty brilliance.
Following its premiere in Toronto’s competitive Platform program, “Dark River” should match and build upon the international exposure for Barnard’s first two features, whether or not it’s quite as ecstatically championed by critics. Where 2010’s boldly form-blurring docudrama “The Arbor” had the shock of the new on its side, and “The Selfish Giant” surprised by dint of its contrasting, commanding classicism, Barnard’s latest sees the erstwhile video artist settling into her considerable skills as a straight-ahead storyteller.
She’s also proving herself one of the most intuitively original adaptation artists working today. After “The Selfish Giant” put a thoroughly oblique yet spiritually true spin on Oscar Wilde, “Dark River” credits Rose Tremain’s acclaimed 2010 novel “Trespass” as its inspiration: A story of familial and class conflict in rural France, it has undergone a drastic geographic and sociopolitical makeover. What remains from the source is an unsparing view of rancorous sibling rivalry, with estranged love and intimate hate pushed to such extremes by circumstance that they’re no longer distinguishable. Of note is that Barnard wrote the film with a grant from British biomedical charity the Wellcome Trust, awarded annually to screenwriters bridging ideas of art and science. Though not academic in detail or outlook, “Dark River” has grown persuasively out of psychiatric research into traumatic memory.
The trauma, in this case, belongs to Alice (Wilson), a native Yorkshirewoman who has spent the last 15 years drifting from farm to farm, scraping by on contract work as a sheep shearer, seemingly avoiding fixity at all costs. One sheep-scattered smallholding she hasn’t passed through in this time is her family’s own, where her brooding older brother Joe (“Game of Thrones” alum Mark Stanley) has been caring for their sickly father (Sean Bean, glimpsed only in terse, quivering flashbacks), increasingly overwhelmed by the demands of the land. Nevertheless, following her father’s death, she warily returns to claim what she believes is her rightful tenancy of the decaying farm.
Hardened by years of compounded disappointment and unrewarded labor, Joe unsurprisingly does not see things the same way, challenging his once-beloved sister’s claim in what gradually escalates into an ugly war of psychological attrition. Even such petty conflicts as a disagreement over methods of sheep-dipping take on larger emotional resonance as the two mutually stubborn siblings grapple for the upper hand, all while the spoils of the battle look increasingly small and unstable. Overlapping in certain narrative respects with “God’s Own Country” and “The Levelling,” “Dark River” likewise dramatizes the widespread financial crisis presently facing Britain’s farmers. There may be no mention of Brexit here, but accidentally or otherwise, its attendant anxiety feels present in the film’s downbeat mood.
An actress of stern, subtle gravitas who has been amply tested in theater and on television, Wilson is long overdue a film lead of this breadth and heft. Though she plays Alice with a decidedly modern defiance, the performance is marked by the classical plangency of her stage turns in such standards as “Anna Christie” and “Hedda Gabler” — a heightened tonal counterpoint to the textured naturalism of her gait and accent.
She has an earthily volatile screen opponent in Stanley, a hard-shelled creature of ire who projects occasional flashes of the less embittered man Joe might have been if he hadn’t been left to contend with his father’s muddy finances and muddier personal history. Both actors do a fine job of physically carrying the paternal abuse they’ve weathered, most wrenchingly so in Alice’s case: Her silent, seconds-long lapses of consciousness into a nightmarish past are tightly controlled, too, by editors Nick Fenton and Luke Dunkley, as Barnard’s script trusts viewers with the ugliest implicit details.
Brazilian cinematographer Adriano Goldman was an inspired choice for a project that benefits from an outsider’s exploratory gaze. Recently celebrated for the pristine, gilded finish of TV’s “The Crown,” he rediscovers the agitated grit of early projects like “Sin Nombre,” while embracing the impact of lower, heavier English skies on his lighting and framing. In harder, more shadowed tones than “The Selfish Giant,” Barnard again evokes both the Yorkshire landscape’s mossy majesty and the austerity that drives people like Alice away. That note of stark seething extends to Harry Escott’s score, bookended by his and P.J. Harvey’s disconsolate, shiver-inducing interpretation of the English folk standard “An Acre of Land” — a literal but inarguably effective selection, and one that typifies the coolly updated traditionalism of Barnard’s new approach.