A product of your landscape: Ruth Wilson and Clio Barnard make 'Dark River'

From Cathy in Wuthering Heights to Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Ubervilles, characters are inextricably linked to their landscape. It’s true too of film, and now The Selfish Giant creator Clio Barnard has created another woman who’s the product of her land, and intends to own every last acre of it – Alice in Dark River.

Alice, played by Ruth Wilson, is a woman returning to the tenant farm she was brought up on, some time after her estranged father’s funeral, to reconnect with her brother Joe (Mark Stanley.) The bottled up rage and trauma of their harrowing childhood after they lost her mother come spilling out, against the background of both siblings competing to buy the farm.

 Dark River: Courtesy Arrow Films   

Dark River: Courtesy Arrow Films

 

All the tenant farmers I met were lorry drivers too to have a second income. So as well as being about politics of the body – how Alice was treated as she grew up – Dark River is also about politics of the land too.” 

“It’s loosely based on Rose Tremain’s novel Trespass,” Clio Barnard explains, “but I was told by Film 4 to make it my own. The thing that captured me in the novel was the relationship between the adult siblings, Alice and Joe. Alice was quiet and living with this locked down rage, so you wouldn’t know she had a difficult past, and he was volatile and drank too much as he carried a burden of guilt. It was their dynamic I was interested in and their need to connect, but their inability to connect.”

Clio Barnard’s previous films, The Selfish Giant and The Arbor, had Bradford as a background, but Dark River , also set in Yorkshire, takes the filmmaker back to her background growing up in a Yorkshire farming community, and the sub plot of the film – Alice’s need to own the land she farms. 

 Dark River: Courtesy Arrow Films

Dark River: Courtesy Arrow Films

“When I grew up in the 70s and 80s tenant farming was different – they had three generation tenancies, so it was relatively secure, and people worked the land for a long time. The countryside has been gentrified now and those tenancies are insecure. All the assets belong to landowners and it’s pretty impossible to make a living now. All the tenant farmers I met were lorry drivers too to have a second income. So as well as being about politics of the body – how Alice was treated as she grew up – Dark River is also about politics of the land too.”

Ruth Wilson, from Luther and The Affair, like her co-star Mark Stanley, plunged herself into the environment to understand Alice. “She learned how to shear sheep, to skin rabbits, to get her hands really dirty,” Clio recalls. “She really went through the mill in order to be convincing – in the first scene she has to shear a sheep in a matter of minutes, and do it well. Alice’s character also represents ambition, as well as all the things that she has lived with since childhood and internalised, and Ruth is an actress of phenomenal subtlety, strength and vulnerability.”

 Clio Barnard: Courtesy Arrow Films

Clio Barnard: Courtesy Arrow Films

        “We’ve romanticised it all,” Clio Barnard on the urban view of the countryside

With the release within the last year of  God’s Own Country and The Levelling, film is finally giving its attention to rural issues in the way that Thomas Hardy, R.S Thomas and Ted Hughes did in their writing. “We’ve romanticised it all,” is Clio Barnard’s opinion.

“But rural problems are very much part of our lives and urban realism exists in film,  so I’m glad that audiences would see this, and for us to think about our relationship with nature which is more acute because of the environmental crisis. The writer George Monbiot talks of ‘ornamental sheep’, and

we have this fantasy about the countryside, but we’re not engaging with the reality of what we’re doing with the land.

“Hopefully if you’re part of that environment you see the connection between all the visceral stuff in the countryside and daily life. It’s filthy and muddy and harsh and there’s death, and brutality which is real, as well as the beauty around you.

“We have a romantic notion of the countryside and now large sections of land are earmarked ‘rural idyll’ and visitors, or those fleeing big cities, have an idealised view of it. But there’s a bit they don’t want to see and that’s where Dark River is set.”

Dark River is released in the UK on February 23, 2018

WOMEN IN FILM, ELECTRAEmma Jones