Dark Waters review: a strong film, that deserves an audience

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Mark Ruffalo and Anne Hathaway lead the cast of the impressive Dark Waters – and here’s our review.

Not too deeply into Dark Waters, there’s a sequence where Mark Ruffalo’s Rob Bilott outlines the details of the legal case that makes up the subject of the movie. I don’t want to spoil details, just that I couldn’t help but absorb and admire the wonderfully subtle editing of the passage in question. Ruffalo’s attorney character lays out, to various parties, just what’s being going on in a way that involves all the key people in the discussion. It’s not a showy, gavel-banging legal drama. Rather, it’s the real-life story of Bilott’s pursuit for justice when an environmental lawsuit is filed against a company seemingly guilty of long-tail pollution. In theme, perhaps not too far away from Erin Brockovich, but here the case is presented in a slightly more complex way, and comes to a quick stop rather than a well-honed ending.

But the film itself is both gripping and well told. Mario Carrea wrote the screenplay, based on a New York Times article, but perhaps the most surprising component of the film is the choice of director Todd Haynes to bring it to the screen. His resume includes the likes of Carol, Velvet Goldmine and Far From Heaven, and it’s hard to initially see the appeal to him for what could be a pretty routine courtroom drama. But it’s the quietly brilliant storytelling that shines. A complex case, with more twists and turns, as well as a significantly longer passage of time than we usually get with movies of this ilk, is moulded superbly. It’s both accessible and quietly skilful.

Ruffalo, also a producer, has the key role here, playing the same character over more than a decade, the passage of time signified both with onscreen reminders and the ageing of his and Anne Hathaway’s Sarah’s children. Tim Robbins cameos as his boss, Bill Camp is impactful as the farmer who starts the whole case off, and Bill Pullman has a ball when it all gets to court. It’s a very accessible film that doesn’t pull punches. But also it finds itself a little in the same boat as the recent, also impressive Just Mercy, in that cinema audiences rarely see this kind of feature as a big screen story at the moment. A shame, because Dark Waters is a diligently shot, carefully presented and important story. It has problems: Hathaway’s character gets pretty short shrift and the sudden ending did leave me wondering if there was at least another ten minutes in here.

Robbed of awards recognition, it’s hard to see Dark Water find much in the way of an audience. But I do hope it finds one.

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