In a year with so many strong debut features from British filmmakers, it’s perhaps not surprising that striking and exciting films have fallen by the wayside when it comes to the end-of-year awards round-ups. God’s Own Country, Lady Macbeth and I Am Not A Witch may have made the jump from film festival circuits to BAFTA nominations, but it’s disappointing that other bright spots have been excluded from the awards’ conversation altogether. Rather surprisingly, Hope Dickson Leach’s The Levelling was only nominated for one BIFA, and not a single BAFTA, despite receiving rave reviews upon its release.
Alike Francis Lee’s God’s Own Country, The Levelling falls firmly into the current trend for rural British dramas. In many ways the film draws comparisons with Clio Barnard’s upcoming Dark River, but it must be said that The Levelling is neither as emotionally-overwhelming as God’s Own Country, nor as star-studded (in cast or director) as Barnard’s film. Yet, what the film lacks in romance or flashy names, it makes up for with quiet intensity and slow-building suspense that pays off admirably during the denouement. The Levelling offers a distinctive, personal tale through beautifully-controlled direction and cinematography – which is all-the-more impressive considering it was made on a tiny budget as part of the iFeatures scheme.
Set on a Somerset dairy farm several months after devastating floods have ravaged the landscape, trainee vet Clover (Ellie Kendrick) returns home following her brother’s suicide. She struggles to connect with her distant and difficult father, Aubrey (David Troughton), who refuses to speak openly about the circumstances leading to his son’s death. Clover tries several times to reach out to Aubrey, with whom she is on first-name terms, but he will not engage about their loss, the farm’s troubles or their future. She slowly starts to unravel the truth about her brother and the family farm, but as she builds an unsettling picture, Clover is unable to suppress her guilt for leaving home and, unknowingly, letting her brother slip away.
Depicting the bleak farm fields, tinged with taupe under threatening grey skies, The Levelling explores Clover’s internal anguish literally and metaphorically. The barren landscape feels as hostile and detached as her long-awaited return home. As she scrubs away blood from the crime scene and holds her brother’s cold, stiff hand in the funeral home, she attempts to confront the trauma head-on. Whilst she pays her respects next to his body, the static long-shot and symmetrical framing captures her unease, but it also allows her to feel the magnitude of the overwhelming loss fully. However, her father’s refusal to acknowledge the truth perpetuates her inability to move past this initial heartbreak. Again and again she physically breaks down when she cannot express herself, or be heard, whilst trying to resolve problems on the farm. At each turn, her guilt grows a little more, and her initial nonchalance fades as she begins to question the unintended consequences of her ambition and independence.
Trapped within the confines of their declining farm and temporary mobile home, Clover and Aubrey’s painful living arrangements echo their current sentence in limbo. They are forced together: entwined in the awfulness of the situation, and separated from the outside world and any sense of normalcy. There are few home comforts or reminders of the past in the empty, unloved caravan. Despite Aubrey’s many cruel orders for Clover to leave him on his own again, like she always does, she cannot generate any forward momentum until the past has been laid to rest. Whilst Aubrey may want to ignore his son’s death and get on with life, they have both ignored their familial complaints against one another for too long. They must come to terms with themselves if they have any hope of moving past their despair.
The Levelling probes the deepest family ties and values. What does it means to aspire to something better away from home, whilst coping with the eternal pull of familial responsibility? In the most devastating circumstances, Clover must evaluate what is important, and re-calibrate her sense of entitlement and judgement of others – especially her father. She may feel that Aubrey pushed her out the door, but now, with hindsight, it’s clear she’s been running and hiding from him and her problems since that day. At some point, she has to stop.
There is no easy solution in the film, but its powerful portrayal of a strained inter-generational relationship speaks loudly to the honest emotions and contradictory views of families all over the world who have grown apart. There are those who feel they have been unceremoniously kicked out, while the others left behind grow tired of dealing with the consequences. Bringing them together asks them to empathise in a way they haven’t for years. The drenched, crumbling farm may be on its final legs, but a new sense of understanding is on the horizon.