Director: Hope Dickson Leach
Stars: Ellie Kendrick, David Troughton, Jack Holden
Hope Dickson Leach’s sparse, emotionally intelligent feature debut features two pieces of source music, both songs taken from A Silver Mt. Zion’s first album He Has Left Us Alone But Shafts Of Light Sometimes Grace The Corners Of Our Rooms. Anyone familiar with that album will understand completely the tone of Leach’s film if I were to say that the two fit one another perfectly. Both are laments, seemingly modest by design, both carry the ability to hit an audience like a freight train if said audience is ready to open up.
2017 has seen some prominent films about grief rolling into UK cinemas; Jackie, Manchester By The Sea, the forthcoming A Ghost Story. The Levelling is a smaller scale endeavour in terms of its realistic reach (I had the fortune of catching it as part of Picturehouse’s regular Discover Tuesday strand), but that shouldn’t relegate it to exist as an outlier. It deserves to be spoken of on the same terms.
Ellie Kendrick (formerly of Game Of Thrones) plays Clover, daughter of a farming family who returns from university to rural Somerset following the sudden and violent death of her brother Harry (a rarely glimpsed Joe Blakemore). In her absence the farm has taken something of a beating. The family home is only partly in use following a season of flooding that has blighted their land and prospects. Her father Aubrey (David Troughton) lives on his land like a visitor in a trailer. Their relationship is stiff, diffident. She calls him by his given name. There are no familial short hands. You’d be forgiven for assuming that they’re not even related on first approach.
We investigate proceedings through Clover’s eyes. A pre-credits series of tantalising flashes give us broken pieces of the night Harry died, and the wild, drunken antics taking place by firelight initially kindle a suggestion of some sort of blood rite in the vein of Ben Wheatley’s Kill List. But Leach’s film quickly asserts a more grounded, earthy tone. There’s no sinister sensationalism to be had here, rather the tougher gut-punch of life simply working against people.
It’s an initially chilly and distancing affair, with muted dialogue exchanges and time spent more practically establishing the rhythms of the farm and the day-to-day, all beneath some terrifically blustery autumnal skies. The impatient might call it dreary, but Leach thoroughly rewards patience as her characters bed in. There are a couple of supporting players, but in the main this is a double-header between Kendrick and Troughton. Both astound, developing more as the film progresses.
Though not a mystery per se, Leach encourages the viewer to engage in stitching together the farm’s secret history; the audience fulfilling the role of Clover’s accomplice. She finds herself a stranger on the land she used to call home. Seemingly disparate discoveries (buried badgers, petrol canisters in a disused kitchen) are all puzzle pieces waiting to be connected. Clover’s inquiries keep bringing her back to the night Harry died, the night of the party.
There’s a lot of talk at the moment of Trump-era cinema, as though the United States holds sway over all of Western filmmaking. The Levelling is a defiantly British piece and it begs the question is there already such a thing as May-era cinema for our smothered little island? This film is not an overtly political one, but there is potent symbolism of austerity to be found in the flooding which has washed the land of its potential, not to mention those buried badgers and their liability to spread a poison through the Catto family’s very livelihood. The Levelling suggests something rotten in the land itself, something spreading, stealing away hope.
However in the main this is a drama of people and, as intimated, grief. Clover is young and fresh from a learning environment. She asks open, direct questions of Aubrey which he counters with evasiveness and alcoholism. Their clashes are generational as young and old attitudes toward tragedy butt up against one another. Their shared scenes are often uncomfortable stand-offs. While there are times when emotions bubble up to the fore, Leach’s humanistic script is wise enough to acknowledge that emotional complexity most commonly breeds frustrating, inarticulate silence. Aubrey in particular is stifled by his own conflicting feelings about what information to share with Clover or even accept as truth.
It’s also a story of inattention. Clover feels guilty for abandoning the farm, resentful of her father for pushing her away. In turn Aubrey begrudges her her ability to seemingly leave at will, and likely scolds himself for being so withdrawn from his daughter. We also get a clear idea of a woman’s perceived role on the farm. Clover struggles to be taken seriously or is assumed ill-equipped to deal with things. Her own father dismisses her intelligence, or perhaps even resents it.
The Levelling is a dour film, cast in greys and browns; the bleakness of its subject matter reflected in the sodden fields and pregnant skies. Interiors are at best functional, at worst dim or stained with memories of the past. This isn’t feel-good viewing. But it is a pervasive and enthralling experience if you allow the characters Leach has drawn to seep in.
A personal note. I lost a brother (under completely different circumstances) and the experience drove a wedge between my father and I for varying reasons that it serves no purpose to unpack here. I often find it easy to leave my personal life in the foyer when visiting the cinema and these events are years past. But The Levelling stirred up some of these knotty memories and emotions in me as I couldn’t help but identify with certain scenes. Leach’s debut triggered connections not so much because it discovered open wounds, but because it so convincingly explores genuine human struggles with connectivity. It is grounded, impressive piece of cinema and hopefully the sign of great things to come.