Nick Ward is an experienced writer/director of stage, radio and TV. In this, his first film, he displays a talent for literate cinema, too. Isolated from the outside world, and from one another, the lives of a farm labourer's family, an orphan boy, a widowed landowner, and a hypocritical vicar are affected by a stream of events which dredge up the past and muddy the present.
Bored by her dull, rural existence, 15-year-old Jen Cross (Charlotte Catton) dreams of reaching the heights of passion with a handsome pilot from the local American air base. Brought down to earth by fumbling sex with orphaned signalman Raif (Jason Carter), Jen is later caught in the act by the Reverend Douglas Stonea (David Warrilow). Jen's father Bernard (Matthew Scurfield), already angry at being sacked by landowner Alan Brandon (Alan Howard) - a frustrated widower who then adds to the indignity by employing Bernard's wife Maud (Amelda Brown) as a cleaning woman - now sinks into a smouldering, jealous rage. Together with some oblique remarks made by Jen to her tag-along 11-year-old sister Amy (Rachel Scott), her father's extreme reaction hints at some darker family secret.
Framing both the wide vistas and the claustrophobic interiors with a painterly eye, the director also coaxes sympathetic performances from a good cast, whose facial expressions and subtle body language add another dimension to the sparse but effective dialogue. Occasionally, the inertia that afflicts the characters also arrests the flow of the narrative, but, for the most part, Ward's direction and Ian Wilson's sublime photography capture the feel of a bleak fen country with just a glimmer of hope on the distant horizon.
Time Out, 15-22nd July 1992.
Talented new British writer-director Nick Ward makes a striking debut with Dakota Road, an original though small-scale picture of considerable merit. Selling the pic to the public may be tough, but critical reactions should be positive.
Despite its title, the film is British in every sense. Set in the Fen country in Norfolk, in a tiny farming community close to a U.S. air base (hence the title), the pic deals with the effects of recession and pollution on a small group of ordinary Brits. It's also about repressed emotions and the difficulties of communication.
None of these subjects make for popular cinema, but audiences worldwide should appreciate this understated but strongly emotional drama.
Only name actor here is Alan Howard (the lover in Peter Greenaway's The Cook, The Thief, His Wife And Her Lover) who plays Alan Brandon, a widowed, small-time landowner living a solitary existence and quietly lusting after the wife and teenage daughter of Bernard Cross (Matthew Scurfield), who works for him as a labourer.
Cross and his wife, Maud (Amelda Brown) exist in a sterile marriage punctuated by violence and desperate quarrels. They have two daughters: teenage Jen (Charlotte Chatton) is involved in a loveless sexual liaison with Raif Benson (Jason Carter), an orphan who lives with the old lady who runs the local store and post office. The younger daughter, Amy (Rachel Scott) is a wide-eyed, old-beyond-her-years tyke who observes everything.
Brandon fires Cross, but hires Maud as a cleaning woman, partly to have a desirable woman around the house. Unable to cope with no longer being a breadwinner, Cross kills himself, but, by a quirk of fate, his body isn't found, and it's thought that he's just disappeared.
Meanwhile, Jen is pregnant, but can't face the thought of marriage to Raif (who, it's hinted, may be the illegitimate son of the local priest, Rev. Stonea). She has a vibrant, but possibly imagined, sexual encounter with an American flyer she meets in the woods.
These are the bare bones of an apparently grim little tale of wasted lives. Bleakness of the film is alleviated by the freshness of Ward's approach, the extraordianry camerawork of Ian Wilson and the fine ensemble performances.
Dakota Road was made on a modest budget as one of the first pictures to emerge from the British film partnership established by former British Screen topper Simon Relph. It's an artistic winner, and the problem now will be to find the audience it deserves. More should be heard from Ward, already an established playwright, in the future.
(Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival, 18.2.91)
Nick Ward's 'Dakota Road', Jocelyn Moorhouse's 'Proof' and Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro's 'Delicatessen' have been nominated for one of the top Ernst and Young British Film Institute (BFI) awards.
The three independent films are competing for the Sutherland Trophy, given to the most original first or second feature to premiere at the National Film Theatre in 1991.
Screen International, 18.9.92.