A sodden field underneath an overcast sky in Southern England. Such an image is a daily occurrence for those who reside there, but you wouldn’t think so in its depiction on film. Writer-director Hope Dickson Leach’s social-realist drama The Levelling goes for the damp, muddy reality of a farm broken in the aftermath of the 2014 Somerset floods. But with its flooded farmland littered with debris and dead animals, comes an atmosphere of guilt, denial and desperation as Leach submerges us into the fallout of a family trauma for which the natural disaster was merely a catalyst. From the film’s cinematography that creates an eerie, disconcerting thematic to the understated, naturalistic performances of Ellie Kendrick and David Troughton, this is an assuredly brooding and emotionally resonant debut. Leach offers a rare glimpse into family dysfunction in a British rural setting that could be another country entirely from the lavish rural idyll seen in the likes of Merchant-Ivory Productions. It is fortunately more Dardenne Brothers than Last of the Summer Wine.
Estranged from her family while studying to become a vet, Clover (Kendrick) returns home after the death of her brother Harry. She finds her former homestead dilapidated and empty, still dampened from the flood and the toilet stained with Harry’s dried blood. Her father, the gregarious but patronising Aubrey (Troughton) is only vaguely pleased to see her and the embitterments between them soon surface. Unconvinced by Aubrey’s assertion that Harry was a victim to a ‘accidental death’, especially when Harry’s close friend James (James Holden) suggests it was a suicide, Clover is determined to discover what actually occurred in her absence. This suitably murky trail leads her back to her past and her deeply-rooted issues with her father, the painful events that drove them apart reemerging as she steps closer to the truth.
From the outset, the ambience of The Levelling is haunting and disconcerting- that almost immediately there is a sense of being unsettled. An animal yelping in the dark, the flashes of bacchanalian partying recall Hardy’s Wicker Man as Leach opens her film in this unnerving way. It rests on the hollow, dark blinking of a dripping hare and the cloudy, muddied Somerset fields, reminiscent of Rosen’s Watership Down for its disturbing animal imagery and darkened, grey palette. These troubling images of still pools and animals treading muddied water (or are they drowning in it?) appear to lie just beneath the human drama, recurring to suggest the thematic of degradation and desperation that is both emotional as well as environmental. For the most part, Leach places her camera behind Clover as she explores the vacant home, with sound designer Ben Baird emphasising the creaks and incidental farming noises in the deathly silence, as per his inspired soundscape for Lady Macbeth. Only occasionally does Leach allow Hutch Demouilpied’s eerie yet elegiac compositions to interrupt that silence, the intense focus on Kendrick’s reactions and exploration lifting away as she treads, reflectively perhaps, through rough, sodden farmland. Leach fuses the natural landscape with the psychological trauma playing out across it, where certain scenes and actions become symbolic for the characters’ emotional states and responses. When Clover has to cull a newly-born calf by the same shotgun that blew Harry’s head off, we can see the perverse, cruel connection that Aubrey is forcing her to make. The socio-political critique in Leach’s work is also subtle here- only hinting at the livelihoods destroyed by inadequate insurance loans as well as the slow collapse of the traditionally male-orientated world of the farm, evident in the chauvinism inflicted upon Clover by Aubrey and his younger male workers.
When not effectively mired in Nanu Segal’s cinematography, Kendrick and Troughton are held claustrophobically close in the now permanent home of a caravan, their ‘very own refugee camp’ as Troughton’s Aubrey describes it. The sparse, tense dialogue is wonderfully delivered and there seems real, understated friction between them. Aubrey’s evasive bonhomie and weary dismissiveness with Clover is deftly performed by Troughton while Kendrick carries the film on her tough, tensed shoulders. She holds face with tensed lips while forcing nervous laughter to avoid expressing her true feelings when she converses. With her restraint, hands folded into her gillet and hair held up, it becomes a joy to watch when she actually smiles and laughs in a rare moment of relief eating lunch in the caravan. By relying on her actors, without needless flashback or elaboration, Leach allows the full portrait of the family to develop while leaving some questions unanswered. What really lies behind Aubrey’s antipathy toward Clover? What pressures forced Harry to lead him to suicide? Leach leaves little suggestions, incidental details here and there but also relies on us to wade through and come up with our own conclusions.
But ambiguity can have its issues, with The Levelling falling a bit flat in its concluding scene, which would not have been out of place on ITV’s Emmerdale. Fortunately, Leach’s hold on us is much more powerful and convincing than a daytime TV soap and its characters are more affecting from the sensitive performance of their contradictions and conflicts. It is refreshing to see a British drama set in rural England that is not so concerned with trying to sell the nostalgic halcyon fields, the ‘green and pleasant land’ of Blake’s Jerusalem. As evident in this debut, Leach shows that she is a thoughtful, confident filmmaker and a refreshing new talent, creating a quietly emotive film that is difficult to wash off.