In Dark River, her third Yorkshire-based film, Clio Barnard explores sheep farming, sibling rivalry… and dreadful family secrets. Exclusive location report by Tony Earnshaw.
There are sheep in the main ring at Skipton Auction Mart, which is precisely as it should be. But at this particular moment in time they are clustered round the monitor that can show writer/director Clio Barnard the sequence she has just shot. Gingerly, she clambers over the small flock of supporting artistes, considers the previous take and calls for another on the film that will become Dark River.
July, 2016. On one of the hottest days of the summer, Barnard and her crew labour in stifling heat surrounded by the overwhelming odour of straw sodden with animal urine. The pungent pong adds to the authenticity of the location, as do the two-dozen locals, old men with walking sticks and flat caps aplenty, on benches observing the sale. Their weathered faces make for living set dressing. And, unlike your visiting townie, they’re utterly immune to the stench. Shame it can’t be smelt on screen.
Standing quietly in the midst of this organised chaos, shepherd’s crook in hand, is Ruth Wilson. The 36-year-old is playing Alice Bell, whose homecoming after 15 long years away causes shock, surprise and consternation, not least for older brother Joe, played by Leeds-born Mark Stanley.
For Alice, returning to Yorkshire after travelling to the ends of the earth as an itinerant sheep shearer, home means claiming the tenancy of the farm where she grew up – and exorcising the ghost of the father, recently dead, who sexually abused her as a child.
Dark River, Barnard’s third feature after The Arbor and The Selfish Giant, was inspired by Rose Tremain’s 2010 novel Trespass. But, like her previous films, it is an interpretation, not an adaptation.
And underlying the awkwardness of the siblings’ relationship is the spectre of their father, played in drifting, wraithlike fashion by Sean Bean.
“In the novel there are two sets of adult siblings,” says Barnard. “The ones that Alice and Joe are based on are the ones that really captured me. It’s about the relationship between them and this very difficult past that they’ve both been damaged by.
“They’d both had very different coping strategies. She’s locked it all away; there’s a lot of internal damage that she’s suppressing, whereas he’s very chaotic and carries this burden of guilt that doesn’t belong to him.
“In a way Joe’s almost been more damaged than she has – or certainly as damaged – and it’s destroyed their relationship.”
Raised and schooled in the Wharfe Valley, Barnard is continually drawn back to the Broad Acres. Following on from her coruscating docu-portrait/biography of Andrea Dunbar, the Bradford playwright who wrote Rita, Sue and Bob Too!, she freely adapted Oscar Wilde’s story The Selfish Giant, focusing her social realist lens on two teenage miscreants. Both films were largely shot in Bradford.
Dark River – the title comes from a poem by Ted Hughes – follows in their wake. It was shot in and around Skipton but, says Barnard, audiences should not be lulled by the picture postcard landscape. Idyllic scenes of Wilson swimming at a waterfall – Janet’s Foss, near Malham – represent a counterpoint to the rigours of the family farm.
She reveals: “I feel very drawn to Yorkshire. I kind of love it. I grew up here and I think it has a really strong pull for people whether they’re filmmakers or not. The thing that took me back originally was Andrea Dunbar via Alan Clark’s film of Rita, Sue and Bob Too!
“What we were looking for was a proper working farm that was not in any way about being picturesque but was about functionality. Shots of the electricity pylons [near the M62 at the beginning of the film] are important because I don’t want it to be a Hovis advert version of Yorkshire. It’s really important to me that there’s some kind of reality in terms of the way the landscape’s represented in the film.
“In terms of the smell, not just in that auction place but on the farm… there’s a point where Ruth’s in the back of the wagon trying to get the sheep out. At one point I went in there to line up the shot and I just thought, ‘Jesus… it is horrible in here!’ But she was amazing. They both were. They really got stuck in.”
Thus the reality of the working farm is in every whiff of fetid air at the auction mart. As Wilson/Alice shepherds her flock into the ring a digital sales board carries the detail “Lot no. 28. 8 Lamb. Swaledale. A. Bell”.
Looking on from amidst the folk thronging the barriers is Matty, played by Dean Andrews, who runs a neighbouring farm and offers a sympathetic ear to her plight.
Rotherham-born Andrews was among the non-actors plucked from obscurity by Ken Loach to join the ensemble of The Navigators in 2001. The former club circuit singer, who has since enjoyed success in film and TV series such as Life on Mars and Last Tango in Halifax, ruminates on his luck during a break in the summer sun.
“Having worked with Clio I think there are a lot of parallels with Ken Loach,” he muses.
“Like Ken, she has a core of professional actors and then other people around her. I was one of those people that Ken Loach got around who had the authenticity of the area. And she’s actually a similar character to Ken Loach, very measured. Ken’s calm under pressure and so is Clio. She seems very quiet to me, just as Ken was. He seemed humble at the time and Clio’s very much like that. The difference is that we got a script at the beginning of this. You don’t on a Ken Loach film.”
Then there is the father. Sean Bean worked on Dark River for a week. Not long, but long enough to infuse the film with his presence. It is dark and forbidding but always with the hope that something redemptive will emerge.
His involvement mirrored that of co-funder Screen Yorkshire, which considers Barnard to be one of the UK’s pre-eminent filmmakers. Executive producer Hugo Heppell, for Screen Yorkshire, said the challenging subject matter draws as much from the Dales landscape as it does from the intense performances of the lead cast. “The result,” he added, “is a deeply affecting drama that deserves to be experienced on the big screen.”
Coincidentally the film was being readied for release just as the Hollywood sex abuse scandal erupted and the #MeToo movement gathered momentum. Not without reason Barnard describes Dark River’s undercurrent of incest – still a massive cinematic taboo – as “the biggest challenge of the film”.
“It’s so easy to get it wrong, you know?” she says. “In a way I didn’t ever want it to be a reveal that Alice had been sexually abused by her father. I wanted there to be a real subtlety about the audience feeling that the father was there but knowing that he isn’t; that he’s there as this intrusive memory for her.
“It was very difficult to try and get that balance right so you’d get a sense of someone living with this trauma that she’s carrying with her all the time.
“And Sean was amazing. He’s such a subtle and thoughtful actor, very quiet. It was quite strange to be using him so little and yet the impact of it needed to be very, very strong. He was just such a lovely presence to have on the set even though what he had to do was so hard.”
Dark River is on nationwide release.