A sense of place: physical landscapes in Dark River and recent British cinema

Clio Barnard’s Yorkshire drama Dark River is the latest in a run of recent British films in which the story is closely tied to the physical environment.

Nikki Baughan
Updated:

Dark River (2017)

Dark River (2017)

As the opening credits of Clio Barnard’s Dark River play over a black screen, we hear the landscape before we see it. An evocative chorus of wind, sea and birdsong provides an immediate sense of place, before we are suddenly thrust – in extreme close-up – next to a sheep being shorn by protagonist Alice (Ruth Wilson). It’s a visceral introduction not just to the film’s central character but to her intimate relationship with her surroundings, which will prove so central to her story.

It’s also an early nod from Barnard that her world of muck and sweat will be far removed from the traditional big-screen image of Britain. International audiences in particular will be familiar with the bucolic green and pleasant land populated by chocolate box cottages from the likes of The Holiday (2006) and, most recently, Peter Rabbit (both tellingly made by American filmmakers) or, conversely, London’s gleaming cityscape. With the occasional ‘grim up north’ locale being thrown into the mix, country and city locations have predominantly served as easy visual shorthands for cosmopolitan modernism versus a more traditional pace of life.

While this cultural divide may, in fact, be cleaved ever deeper by Brexit, a raft of UK filmmakers have chosen to sidestep such easy generalisations in favour of more richly textured portraits of British life. This geographical intimacy is evident not only in their depiction of the people who populate these regions, but also in their use of the landscape itself to underscore key narrative themes.

And so it is with Dark River, a desperately moving story of sibling rivalry and long-held family secrets that unfolds on a run-down farm in the expanse of North Yorkshire. The countryside is undeniably beautiful and, unlike Francis Lee’s similarly-set God’s Own Country (2017) – which kept its focus deliberately downcast in line with protagonist Johnny’s (Josh O’Connor) closeted worldview – there are plenty of wide shots that drink in the pastoral view. It is, however, also cold, unforgiving and deeply foreboding.

Watch the Dark River trailer

Dark River’s Brazilian cinematographer Adriano Goldman often frames Alice and the grey hulking farmhouse, haunted by the ghost of her abusive father, to which she reluctantly returns as lone figures in the middle of the vast countryside. The rolling fields are not a familiar anchor for this lifelong farmer’s daughter, but an ocean on which she is set adrift. And, against this harsh landscape, the familiar sounds that opened the film – birds, animals, wind in the trees – take on a mocking, accusatory, predatory tone.

God’s Own Country’s cinematographer Joshua James Richards also effectively utilised the landscape as an emotional metronome, focusing on the mud and blood as a desperately unhappy Johnny, trapped by his responsibilities, works the land in emotionless fashion. In that film, however, there’s a sense of hope in the form of Johnny’s relationship with Romanian farmhand Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu), evidenced as much in their surroundings as in the script. As they grow closer, the land becomes softer, tones warm, the sun shines and even the birdsong becomes sweeter. A sequence in which the pair climb to the summit of a hill, and the camera finally widens to take in the view, is euphoric in its optimism.

Cinematographer Joshua James Richards and director Francis Lee filming God’s Own Country (2017)

Cinematographer Joshua James Richards and director Francis Lee filming God’s Own Country (2017)

The future is, however, less certain for Dark River’s Alice and, again, the landscape speaks to her fate. During the film’s shocking climax, she is absorbed into the rain and the mud, in danger of being consumed by an environment she cannot escape. Possible salvation comes from her brother but, even then, happiness is not guaranteed; as Alice strides away across the fields, which are icy and hard underfoot, it remains unclear whether she is a master of the land, or a prisoner of it.

That’s also true of Clover Cato (Ellie Kendrick), the protagonist of Hope Dickson Leach’s The Levelling (2016). Also returning home to her family farm following a bereavement, the recently flooded Somerset flats reflect her own helpless isolation as she is weighed down by the burden of responsibility. And for Moll, the flame-haired protagonist of Michael Pearce’s blistering debut Beast (due for a UK theatrical release in April), her rural Jersey home is a topographical melting pot of emotion, a restrictive environment of suffocating tradition, which she is desperate to escape.

Ellie Kendrick in The Levelling (2016)

Ellie Kendrick in The Levelling (2016)

Away from the countryside, filmmakers are also finding new ways to articulate the urban experience beyond those aspirational gleaming spires. In Daphne (2017), for example, director Peter Mackie Burns moves the action south, to a small area of Elephant and Castle whose lived-in vibrancy reflects that of his eponymous heroine. Daphne’s (Emily Beecham) small apartment, restaurant workplace and local corner store – in which a pivotal event occurs – become her narrative touchstones, providing both familiar comfort and a claustrophobic sense of routine.

Daphne (2017)

Daphne (2017)

Similarly, in A Moving Image (2016), filmmaker Shola Amoo directly confronts London’s evolution, the changing facade of Brixton becoming an indictment of the detrimental impact of gentrification. And in his acerbic, darkly funny Freehold, which did the festival rounds in 2017, Dominic Bridges effectively utilises the sleek confines of a modern London apartment to suggest both the opportunities the city presents to those who can afford them, and the way in which it suffocates those who can’t.

Urban filmmakers are also finding plenty of inspiration outside of London. In Dan Kokotajlo’s Jehovah’s Witness drama Apostasy, which struck a chord at the 2017 London Film Festival, Manchester is not a place of forward-thinking modernity, but a shadowy, cloistered community of strict rules and harsh punishments, where the local community hall becomes a beacon of intolerance. And in Alex Taylor’s experimental coming-of-age drama Spaceship (2016) the nondescript town of Guildford takes on an otherworldly atmosphere, the concrete skateparks and neon nightclubs speaking to the extremes of adolescent expression and a universal desire for escape.

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