The title of Patrick Hough’s The Black River of Herself is lifted from the poetry of Seamus Heaney – a body of writing steeped in history that is keenly attuned to the subliminal influences that permeate a landscape and shape a particular place. Over the years, Heaney returns, again and again, to the figure of the ‘bog body’: the intact corpse of an ancient predecessor uncannily preserved in the primordial peat. A stark and indelible memento mori, the bog body is also a reminder of an enduring continuum: the dark river of our ancestral DNA, flowing submerged for untold generations, now suddenly surfacing, frozen in time, as if from the depths of the collective unconscious; a revenant from the past, manifesting, like an omen, in the present.
In Hough’s film, a female bog body is uncovered at the site of a dig. Like a person lying prostrate at the scene of an accident, she is unable to move but fully able to speak. The archaeologist/surveyor who has been delegated to recover her listens matter-of-factly at first, then comfortingly and increasingly attentively, as her meandering monologue moves on from an account of her individual fate to a premonition of a tragedy awaiting the contemporary environment – her ageless senses instantly alerted to changes in air temperature, and the presence of alien micro-particles. As the race to save the bog body turns into an allegory about the future of the planet, Hough punctuates the narrative with panoramic views of an evergreen Irish landscape, whose rugged, weather-beaten features look like they have been there from time immemorial. But it is the dramatic interplay between the two central protagonists that encapsulates the film. Beautifully scripted by novelist Daisy Hildyard, its wry, saturnine exchanges are disarmingly affectionate and genuinely affecting: the flesh and bones of a subtle and haunting piece of filmmaking that lingers powerfully in the mind.
Read A voice comes to one in the dark, Brian Dillon's essay on Hough's The Black River of Herself.