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Funded by the BBC and Creative England, The Levelling was made a part of the iFeatures scheme – helping first-time directors make low budget feature length films -and at the Glasgow Film Festival competed for the Audience Awards.
Set after the impact of the 2014 Somerset Floods, veterinary student Clover (Game of Thrones’ Ellie Kendrick) returns to her family farm after her brother Harry’s suicide. Upon her return she has to help prepare for Harry’s funeral, face the animosity of her father, Aubrey (David Troughton) and deal with the fact that the farm is on the brink of ruin.
The Levelling partly appealed to me because it was set and filmed in an area near to where I grew up. At the end of the film, writer/director Hope Dickson Leach stated she choose the setting because the imagery had a post-apocalyptic feel to it and made a great backdrop to the drama about a family who are unable to communicate.
Dickson Leach certainly wants to set herself in the mold of other British female directors like Andrea Arnold and Lynne Ramsey: all three made debut films about the theme of grief and were unflinching with their approaches. The difference in The Levelling is its rural setting which is often overlooked for the more acute poverty in inner cities. The Levelling shows the aftermath of the floods on a farm that had inadequate insurance, forcing a man out of his home to a live in a small temporary building and being on the edge of bankruptcy. Its hard, physical work – made worse because the family and farm workers are dealing with their grief. Although Dickson Leach was based in Scotland and has her MFA from Columbia University, she does show an understanding of issues affecting rural communities – like TB affecting cattle and the controversial issue of badger culling, plus the devastation of flooding and how that can cause people to lose their homes and insurance not paying out for any damage. Rural life may look idyllic, but reality can be much less romantic.
However, Dickson Leach also inherits some of the worst traits of Arnold and Ramsey as well as their strengths. Dickson Leach had a habit to cut to footage of animals swimming in the flood waters – particularly of a hare. These moments were similar to scenes in Ramsey’s first film Ratcatcher, where one boy ties his pet mouse to a balloon and lets it float away. These were attempts to be meaningful and subjective, but really were directional self-indulgence. It’s even worse in The Levelling because it was a smaller scale story in a grounded setting.
The Levelling is at its best expressing quiet moments. This was achieved through Kendrick’s performance and Dickson Leach’s direction as Clover explores her old home. The old cliché ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ is true for The Levelling -like when Clover goes into the room where her brother shot himself and the walls are covered in his blood. Dickson Leach described that Kendrick got into character by creating a backstory and memories and her performance reflected this – with her small looks and facial expressions. When Clover has to handle the guns that her brother used to kill himself there is a literal and metaphoric weight to them. The actor/directing pairing have continued a working relationship because Dickson Leach has directed a short film that was co-written by Kendrick.
Troughton was also impressive as Clover’s father – a man who is overly hard on his daughter snapping at her as she works on the farm, and as she tries to question Aubrey about Harry’s suicide he shuts her down. The bitterness is palpable between the pair. There are the occasional moments of warmth like when the two have dinner with one of the farm workers, yet even when the father and daughter do attempt to bond they have differing accounts of the same event like when Clover was at boarding school. Aubrey is a hard man with an old-fashioned view that men should suppress their feelings and deal with their own issues by themselves, and combined with his distant relationship with Clover, it makes The Levelling a story about people trying to comprehend their emotions.
The Levelling has a high, electronic score which gave the movie a haunting quality. It was impactful when showing flashbacks to the party and showing the desolate flat landscape of the Somerset Levels and seeing the wildlife carry on as the family disintegrates.
Dickson Leach shows a lot of promise as a filmmaker, making a small personal story with a wide visual scope: a great example of what a director’s first film should be. She gets the best out of her actors although she does succumb to the odd moment of art-house pretension.