Isn’t Ruth Wilson incredible? I think so, and I haven’t even seen her in all that much but she makes such a vivid impression each time and fills the screen with her presence, like this generation’s s answer to Meg Foster. She stole the show in Gore Verbinski’s underrated Lone Ranger update and made a terrific Marissa Coulter in BBC’s impressive His Dark Materials but her work in the quietly devastating Dark River from filmmaker Clio Bernard is my favourite thing she’s done so far and is an uncommonly good, intuitively calibrated piece of organic acting.
Dark River sees her play Alice, a guarded, introverted woman who returns home to the farm near Yorkshire where she grew up after learning that her father has passed away. There she finds ghosts that linger in the squalid air, the half remembered recollections of sexual abuse at the hands of her own father, events that the homestead seems to somehow hold in the space like memories out of place and time yet still languishing about the place just to haunt her. She clashes with her troubled brother (Mark Stanley) over who will inherit the property as her father seemed to want her to keep it, and they both have different ideas on both how to run it and what to eventually do with it. This film didn’t go over with some people because of how ambient and naturalistic it is but if you need your thematic and narrative sustenance spoon-fed to you in an accessible form you’ve really picked the wrong film. This is a story about the things unsaid, the pauses between words, the feelings that sensory recall evokes and the way a place, so specific in setting and atmosphere, can dredge up memories never thought to be felt again.
Ruth is transcendent and heart wrenching as Alice, who harbours deep trauma from her father’s abuse and confused resentment towards her brother for never intervening. Her path is a tragic one, full of rain soaked sheep pastures, introspective turmoil and dread laced flashbacks. Yet despite all this gloom and sadness there’s a brightness and vitality to her performance, opposite notes found in a sea of woe that provide blooms of hope and retribution if only she can put the past to rest. Her story is an immediate, intimate and deeply affecting one, provided one has the proper attention to invest as it is meditative and not readily spelled out for us, the viewer but rather felt on a deeper level.
Her father is seen fleetingly in fragmented impressions of the past and is for some reason played by none other than Sean Bean in a sombre, cloudy cameo that really could have been played by anyone but I’ll never say no to an appearance from him, however brief and ghostly. Director Clio Barnard shows uncanny skill around the camera, giving us melancholy, sustained pictures of the English countryside resplendent with misty hillsides to mirror the restless mental fog that Alice must wade through on her journey home, a journey taken both inward and external. PJ Harvey’s absolutely gorgeous, elemental song ‘My father left me an acre of land’ plays ethereally in the opening and exodus of the film to appropriate effect. An acre of land unfortunately isn’t the only thing he left her and seeing her grapple, overcome and try her best to move on from it is one of this story’s great gifts. Phenomenal film.