As we type this up, Clio Barnard has just been invited to join The Academy. Her work on The Selfish Giant garnered her much attention and acclaim. For her latest, Barnard takes us to the English countryside where siblings, Alice (Ruth Wilson) and Joe (Mark Stanley) have returned following their father’s death. The dark looming skies of the Yorkshire dale hovers like the ghost of their dead dad and their past which they are forced to face.
Memories surface and the siblings confront the abuse they have kept hidden for so long. Dark River is incredibly well-acted and Adriano Goldsmith’s cinematography come together for this intense and compelling story.
I caught up with Barnard to discuss bringing Dark River to the screen and capturing the emotion of abuse. Read our chat below:
How did the journey from book to screen happen for you?
The novel was sent to me by Suzanne Mackie and it began life as a straightforward adaptation. Over time, it grew away from that so it was more inspired by the novel. I was really captured by the characters in the book and what I wanted to explore was how by both of the main characters were so damaged. I wanted to look at how they dealt with it in different ways and how it had an impact on their relationship.
It’s a great relationship between the siblings and that revelation we see. What’s the challenge in bringing a book with abuse as its core and capturing that emotion?
It was a huge challenge. The subject matter is really difficult and feels like a big responsibility. In a way, it’s a story about a woman who hasn’t been able to speak about it and has been suppressing something for a very long time because it is so far in her past. In a novel, you can be inside someone’s head and understand their thinking and how they feel on the inside. With film, it’s so much more difficult. Particularly, as it was about two people who are desperate to connect, but can’t articulate it and can’t speak about it. It was a huge challenge.
Where was that emotion more difficult to get across? Was it more in the script or the editing aspect?
It was all the way through. The thing that made it possible were the performances by Mark and Ruth who are brilliant actors and can convey an enormous amount of emotion. The other thing was I tried to express what was going on in terms of the cinematography to give the audience a sense of everything that wasn’t being said.
One scene comes to mind, when the guy says, “Why aren’t you coming back for your father’s funeral?” There’s a sense of everything that she’s not saying in that scene and you understand her sense of heroism. Joe is complicated but he’s also suffered sexual abuse and living with something he can’t express and hasn’t spoken about. I wanted to give that sense of it being felt rather than it being told.
Ruth is such a great actress and wonderful to see in this. Take us through your casting process.
She is extraordinary. She has this strength and vulnerability. Technically, she is amazing but she is also incredibly instinctive. We met about a different project, but she read the script and got in touch with me and said she wanted to do it. That was the casting process for Alice.
Joe’s casting took longer. Ruth was involved so we met people with her to see what the chemistry was like between them. Mark came into the casting as Joe. He came in as a farmer with a dirty jumper, hunched shoulders and there’s actually a lot of physical performance in what Mark does because he’s much younger than Joe and Ruth.
He was just brilliant and knocked us all out with his performance.
What was your relationship like with them, especially as it’s a heavy topic to deal with?
I’d actually spoken to a lot of people while I was researching the screenplay. I put them in touch with those people because they’d been so helpful for me in understanding what the characters are dealing with. The combination of understanding the psychology and the collaboration of talking and doing helped a lot. Part of what they were doing was learning to be farmers. They also had to get the accent right.
I found it fascinating to learn about the decisions they made. Ruth said when she was training to be a farmer, she was working with a sheepdog. She said when it wasn’t working, it seemed frightened, but when it was working, it became focused. I think she based Alice on the dog.
Mark told me that when Joe’s father died, Joe got in his lorry and drove until the gas ran out. For me, it was such a pleasure to hand over the characters to see what decisions they were going to make. It was intense and hard.
Mark and Ruth got on so well. On the screen was the dark side of that relationship, but off-screen, they were like siblings who adored each other.
Adriano Goldsmith, your DP captures some amazing frames in the film whether it’s the dark skies or the lighting. What conversations did you have with him?
I really loved his work on Jane Eyre. I loved it. It felt to me like the landscape that I was familiar with. I think in the UK you see it as a chocolate box, picture postbox. I knew Adriano would shoot it in such a visceral way. We had a lot of conversations and how to shoot it with the lighting.
When the landlord comes to see Joe we stay focused on Joe lighting the cigarette and let the landlord be in the background of the shot. The intention we see is to stay on Joe for the whole scene, but that’s the principle of how we were shooting.
The sound design really is prominent here. Talk about working with Tim and what you wanted to convey.
We’ve worked together for a really long time and he’s a key collaborator for me. He records the sound on set. We were talking from script stage through to the sound design and what sounds he might be looking for. There’s a relationship of complete trust. He was designing the sound and I’d be listening to and seeing what he was doing. A lot of it was about wanting to feel absorbed.
One thing I loved was when Joe throws the table over, there’s a sound of a military jet. That was partly from Tim being in that environment and Tim hearing that. It’s not completely naturalistic, but I hope it gives a sense of what’s happening to Joe in that moment.
It really stood out. So, PJ Harvey’s music was a great addition to the movie.
She saw The Selfish Giant and wrote me a letter and I was thrilled about that because I’m a big fan. We met and talked about possibly working together. I sent her the script. We met and actually got together about how her music might work. The only place for song was at the beginning and at the end. We talked about what that song might be. I wanted a traditional folk song, but it wasn’t clear what that song was going to be until quite far in the edit.
Harry Escott who was the composer wrote a beautiful piece of music that PJ Harvey came in and sang and it worked out really well.