Francis Lee

Dark River

24/2/18

There’s a lot to admire about Dark River, not least its cast list, with Ruth Wilson, Mark Stanley and Sean Bean all demonstrating exactly why they’re such acclaimed actors. They deserve our respect. Because this bleak and brutal tale depends entirely on their ability to create empathetic characters, to convey their muted misery with nuance and subtlety. Perhaps inevitably, the film has drawn comparisons with God’s Own Country, with which it shares the stark landscape of rural Yorkshire, but – beyond the superficial, they have little in common: Francis Lee’s debut is essentially a love story, while this Clio Barnard film is a harrowing family drama.

We first meet Alice (Wilson) earning her crust as a migrant farm hand, seemingly happy in her work despite its rigours. She’s confident and competent, well-liked by her colleagues. ‘There’s always work for you here,’ her boss assures her, but she’s leaving anyway. Her father has died; she’s going home to the family farm – the one he promised would be hers one day. But of course, it’s not as straightforward as that. Home is a complicated place, and Dad (a virtually silent Sean Bean) is still a looming presence, despite his recent demise. What’s more, Joe (Stanley), Alice’s brother, has other ideas. He’s been working this land for most of his life, and believes he has the greater claim on it, despite the fact that he’s let the place go to rack and ruin and spends much of his time  drinking away his dissatisfaction.

And besides, it’s almost a moot point. They don’t even own the farm; they’re just tenants. The best either of them can hope for is to be granted the tenancy, which seems unlikely as property developers are already sniffing around, sensing an opportunity to make some money.

The half-buried secrets and unspoken resentments eventually boil over into violent confrontation. Ultimately though, the story feels too slight (and perhaps a little too over- familiar) to entirely convince, and the shot of redemption we are offered at its conclusion isn’t entirely satisfactory. As I said before, there’s plenty to admire here, but perhaps, not an awful lot to enjoy. One thing’s for sure. This isn’t going to figure highly on a list of feature films recommended by the Yorkshire tourist board.

3.6 stars

Susan Singfield

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Film Bouquets 2017

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All things considered, 2017 was a pretty good year for film – so much so that we’ve decided to award twelve bouquets – and it still means leaving out some excellent movies. Here, in order of release, are our favourite films of 2017.

Manchester By the Sea

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This bleakly brilliant film got the new year off to a great start. Powered by superb central performances by Casey Affleck and (especially) Michelle Williams, it was a stern viewer indeed who didn’t find themselves reduced to floods of tears.

Moonlight

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An affecting coming-of-age movie chronicling the life of a young black man as he gradually came to terms with his own sexuality, this film, of course, beat La La Land to the best movie Oscar in unforgettable style. It absolutely deserved its success.

Get Out

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A ‘social thriller’ that, despite it’s serious message, enjoyed a lightness of touch that made it a joy to watch. There were shades of The Stepford Wives and this witty calling card from director Jordan Peele suggested that cinema had found a hot new talent.

The Handmaiden: Director’s Cut

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Park Chan-wook’s masterpiece, loosely based on Sarah Water’s novel, Fingersmith, took us into the Korea of the 1930s and kept us spellbound for nearly three hours. Lush cinematography, a genuine sense of eroticism and fine performances from an ensemble cast – what’s not to like?

The Red Turtle

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This stunning animation from Michael Dudok de Wit, co-produced by Japan’s Studio Ghibli,  exemplified the best artistic traditions of east and west – a beautiful allegory about life and love and relationships. A delight to watch and a story that we couldn’t stop thinking about.

Baby Driver

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Edgar Wright’s adrenaline-fuelled chase movie ticked all the right boxes – a great soundtrack, breathless pacing and an intriguing central character in Ansel Elgort’s titular hero. It all added up to an unforgettable movie experience.

God’s Own Country

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This extraordinarily accomplished debut by writer/director Francis Lee played like ‘Brokeback Yorkshire’ but had enough brio to be heralded in its own right. Beak and brutal, it told the story of two farm hands slowly coming to terms with their growing love for each other. Magnificent stuff.

Mother!

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Darren Aronfsky’s absurd fantasy alienated as many viewers as it delighted, but we found ourselves well and truly hooked. From Jennifer Lawrence’s great central performance to the film’s bruising finale, this was definitely a film not to be missed – and one of the year’s most discussed films.

Blade Runner 2049

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We waited thirty years for a sequel to Ridley Scott’s infamous film and I’m glad to say it was worth the wait – a superior slice of dystopian cinema that dutifully referenced the original whilst adding some innovative ideas of its own. Denis Villeneauve handled the director’s reins expertly and Hans Zimmer’s score was also memorable.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer

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Another piece of eerie weirdness from director Yorgos Lanthimos, this film also managed to divide audiences, but for us it was a fascinating tale, expertly told and one that kept us hooked to the final, heart-stopping scene. A unique cinematic experience.

Paddington 2

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Yes, really! The sequel to the equally accomplished Paddington was an object lesson in how to effortlessly please every single member of an audience. Charming, funny and – at one key point – heartbreaking, this also featured a scene-stealing turn from Hugh Grant.

The Florida Project

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Think ‘Ken Loach does Disney’ and you’re halfway there. Sean Baker’s delightful film might just have been our favourite of 2017, a moving story about the tragic underbelly of life in contemporary America. Brooklyn Prince’s performance as six-year-old Moonee announced the arrival of a precocious new talent.

Philip Caveney & Susan Singfield

God’s Own Country

06/09/17

God’s Own Country is an extraordinarily accomplished debit from writer/director Francis Lee. Heralded by some critics as ‘Brokeback Yorkshire,’ it tells the story of a young farmer, Johnny (Josh O’ Connor) who’s reeling from the weight of expectation heaped upon him. His father, Martin (Ian Hart) has had a stroke, so all the heavy work falls to Johnny, but Martin still decides exactly how the farm is run, and doesn’t appreciate how unhappy his son is. The two men, along with Martin’s mother, Deidre (Gemma Jones) have an isolated existence, albeit in the beautiful Yorkshire countryside, and Johnny relies on heavy drinking and occasional joyless sexual encounters to get him through the days. He’s inarticulate almost to the point of silence: his grunts and mutterings are not much clearer than the noises made by his beloved animals. He’s definitely not ‘out,’ despite the regularity of his gay encounters. But who would he come out to? His father and grandmother have no idea of who he is or what he wants; he barely seems to know himself.

When Romanian farmhand Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu) is taken on to help with the lambing, Johnny is at first resistant to the newcomer, wary of an interloper, unwilling to be exposed. But the two young men discover a mutual respect, realising they share a lot of the same skills and values, and their tenuous friendship soon takes a sexual turn. And then they fall in love.

Make no mistake, this is a bleak and brutal film, that doesn’t shy away from the realities of farming – nor of sex. We are presented with bodies in many forms: a slick newborn lamb is slapped into breath; a dead calf is kicked savagely away from its lowing mother; the grunting, heaving urgency of two men who want to fuck is contrasted with the devastating helplessness of a disabled man who cannot bath himself.

There is real misery here, and desperation, but there’s hope too, and, ultimately, love. It’s an astonishing first feature and an absolute joy to watch.

4.6 stars

Susan Singfield