by Tim Pompey

Dark River 
Directed by Clio Barnard
Starring: Ruth Wilson, Mark Stanley, and Sean Bean. 
Rated NR
1 hr., 30 min.

So what’s so interesting about raising sheep? Try watching the English drama Dark River, currently available on Amazon Prime.

Directed by award-winning documentary filmmaker Clio Barnard, this feature film uses all the elements of farm life, from the weather to the sheep themselves, to call attention to the wounded souls of brother and sister Joe (Mark Stanley) and Alice (Ruth Wilson) Bell. After their father (Sean Bean) dies, Alice returns from a 15-year hiatus to take over the sheep farm. But much like the title implies, there are dark rivers awaiting her. From implied incest to conflict over control of the farm, Alice and Joe tiptoe around each other until the pain boils over and their stress leads to violence. 

What is unique about this film is its use of visual cues and natural surroundings to create a setting that is as much a part of the film as the actual characters in the film — the weather, the land, the swimming hole, the presence of the sheep as witnesses to Joe and Alice’s movements. The drama itself is ably communicated by Wilson, whose fragile movements, cautious face and terrifying flashbacks of sexual abuse appeal to our empathy. Stanley matches her with an internal torment offset by a surprising concern for his environment. He, too, lives in torment over his inability to protect his sister and his failure to maintain the farm. 

Barnard adds a delicate touch as a director, not rushing the drama, leaving a lot of space for audience reflection, as if she’s letting us decide between the two siblings. Who should get the land? Who’s responsible for losing the farm? Who was most damaged by their father’s actions? All of which leaves us in the juror’s seat regarding the ending. 

If you enjoy dark drama, who is better at it than the Brits? Small films like Dark River and huge family melodramas like Downton Abbey. While this film is definitely a dark horse, it should not be overlooked if you’re in the mood for something meaty and dripping with angst. Set in the wide English countryside with lots of wind and rain, you’ll want to get a blanket and umbrella. It’s moody, muddy and malevolent with just enough sweetness and sunshine to keep you from covering your head and crying uncle. Oh, yeah  — the sheep are also very cute.

Out of the Box is a semi-regular column by VCReporter staff and contributors about television and streaming content.