INTERVIEW: Director Clio Barnard Discusses Craft, Healing, and Her Latest Film, ‘Dark River’


There is always something so refreshing about talking with women in the film industry. They bring perspectives that feel new and interesting. Imagine the stories we’re missing out on by limiting female voices.

One such brilliant woman is Clio Barnard, whose new film, “Dark River,” opens in limited release this weekend. It is a tale, not just of abuse, but of surviving it. Of learning how to heal and move forward. And of learning when to set aside the past and when to give into it.

“Dark River” is the story of Alice (Ruth Wilson) and Joe (Mark Stanley). Alice returns to her family home after learning of the death of her father (Sean Bean). She left home fifteen years earlier, escaping years of abuse and making a new life for herself. But when she returns to claim her share of the family farm, Joe is not eager to welcome her back in.

Barnard (who pronounces her first name with a long i), directed a couple of short films before taking on a feature-length documentary. That film, “The Arbor,” traveled the festival circuit, picking up awards and commendations along the way. She followed that three years later with her first narrative feature, “The Selfish Giant” in 2013. That film, adapted from an Oscar Wilde tale, also made the rounds at festivals, winning prizes, and giving her a BAFTA Independent Film Awards nomination for Best Director.

And now, four years later, she returns with “Dark River,” a film she both wrote and directed. As if that weren’t enough to celebrate, just this week she was among the 928 invited to join The Academy.

The other day, I had the opportunity to talk with Clio Barnard about the film. We discussed her influences, her stellar cast and crew, and working as a female director in 2018.

Karen Peterson/Awards Circuit: I love getting the chance to talk to women directors.

Clio Barnard: There really aren’t enough of us, are there?

KP: And that’s why I’m excited to talk to you today about your new film, “Dark River.” I understand it was inspired by a novel?

CB: Yes, it was inspired by a wonderful novel called “Trespass” by Rose Tremaine. But it isn’t a strict adaptation. In the novel there are two sets of siblings. But I found myself particularly drawn to the ones who are on this farm. I wanted to explore their story. They want to connect, they’ve both been through abuse. But they are so unable to come together because of their experiences. And I wanted to look at how each of them dealt with it.

KP: What were some of the challenges in moving this story from the book to the screen?

CB: I needed Alice to be more active than in the novel. In a novel, you have access to peoples’ internal thoughts. You can see into their minds, so to speak. But in a film, you can’t do that. And with these two characters, when so much isn’t said between them, you have to find ways to communicate that visually. It was a challenge.

KP: You have two perfect actors in Ruth Wilson and Mark Stanley as Alice and Joe. How did you choose them?

CB: I’d met with Ruth on another project, actually. But then she read this script later and she contacted me and said, “I want to do this.” And she was brilliant.

Joe took a bit longer. Quite a bit longer. We met with several people, had them meet with Ruth. But when we met Mark, he was right. And he came in just ready to do it. He really was brilliant as well.

KP: And how did you come to cast Sean Bean in the role as their father?

CB: We had to be very careful. Sean is a big presence and we couldn’t let that overtake the other actors. So I scaled back bits of it. But he is such a gifted actor. He was fantastic to work with.

KP: I was really surprised to see so many women involved with this film behind the scenes. You have several women producing, and many working in the crew. Was that an intentional decision?

CB: I do feel it’s important to have women involved in all aspects. I don’t know that I set out to have a number, but I did want to have women in the crew. But I wanted to have the best crew I could, and I think I have that.

KP: I also noticed that your cinematographer is Adriano Goldman (Netflix’s “The Crown”). How did you choose him?

CB: I really liked Adriano’s work on a film from a few years ago called “Jane Eyre.” I wanted to work with him because I loved how he filmed Yorkshire. It was the Yorkshire I remembered. My Yorkshire. Maybe he had it right because he had the outsider’s perspective, being from Brazil. A lot of people now tend to romanticize it, but I needed it to be what he gave me.

KP: Where does the title “Dark River” come from?

CB: It comes from a poem by Ted Hughes. Here, I’ve got the line right here:

Cows are going home in the lane there, looping the hedges with their warm
wreaths of breath –
A dark river of blood, many boulders,
Balancing unspilled milk.
‘Moon!’ you cry suddenly, ‘Moon! Moon!’

(From ‘Full Moon and Little Frieda’ by Ted Hughes.)

We would like to thank Clio Barnard for taking some time to discuss the “Dark River.”

This film is distributed by FilmRise, and is in limited release this weekend.