The Yorkshire depicted in Clio Barnard’s third feature, Dark River, has much in common with that of Francis Lee’s recent triumph, God’s Own Country: a place of hard labor and lowering skies, of bleating sheep and repressed sexuality. Yet even in the swelling canon of British rural miserabilism, this unrelentingly intense psychodrama burrows beneath the skin.
Much of that is due to Ruth Wilson’s tough, traumatized performance as Alice, an itinerant sheep shearer who returns home to claim tenancy of the family farm. Fifteen years have passed, and her estranged brother, Joe (a fine Mark Stanley), who nursed their terminally ill father while the farm crumbled around them, is not having it. He might be a bitter drunk – and the farm, under his stewardship, a vermin-infested husk of the smallholding Alice remembers – but he feels equally owed his inheritance. And, unlike Alice, entirely unable to share it.
[Dark River is] gorgeously photographed by the Brazilian cinematographer Adriano Goldman […]. Economic anxieties press in from outside, but it’s the farm’s fusty interiors, where every cranny conceals a flinching flashback, that spark Alice’s worst memories. As the ghost of her father (indelibly played by Sean Bean) slips in and out of the frame, she turns from steely survivor to terrified child. It almost hurts to look at her. [The film’s] pain echoes far beyond the decaying rooms where it was born.
Jeannette Catsoulis, The New York Times