In the opening to The Levelling, writer and director Hope Dickson Leach introduces us to what looks like a rural post-apocalypse. Under skies drained of their colour lie fields still soaked from a past deluge. The machines of industry sit discarded in yards or by the roadside, their hydraulic arms seized in position, curled inwards like the legs of dead spiders, the claws at the end of them crusted with old mud. Houses have fallen into disrepair; some of them may have been abandoned already. There is not a soul to be found.
Such is the scene that Clover (Ellie Kendrick) returns to after years away from the farm on which she grew up. She has spent that time pursuing a veterinary career and is nearly through college, but the awful news that her brother Harry (Joe Blakemore) has died brings her back home to her father, Aubrey (David Troughton).
This tragedy is only the catalyst for the conflict that drives the film. When Clover tells a friend that she wishes it was her father that died instead of her brother, it becomes clear that the reunion to come may not be a wholly comfortable one. The landscape around the farm has been devastated by floods, and her family is left equally wrecked by the death of the only member who had a chance of holding it together.
Ellie Kendrick is heart-breaking as Clover, a vulnerable yet headstrong young woman who wants nothing else but to be with her family, happy together. Guilt weighs heavy on her, as it does on many of the people connected to her brother’s death. But Clover buries it deep under a newfound sense of duty, as she tries to help her father turn around his struggling farm, and a stubborn reluctance to expose her true feelings about their relationship.
The frustrations that Clover and her father share – about the farm, which is in danger of going under in more ways than one, or about Harry’s death, or their own past – are articulated through some incredibly nuanced dialogue. Characters are evasive, skirting around the painful heart of their problems to instead just deal with practicalities in the aftermath, such as Harry’s funeral, or the sale of their cow herd, their last chance to save the farm.
Despite their best efforts, these characters expose their fragilities without meaning to. Clover responds to a suggestion that she feels some guilt over Harry’s death by saying, ‘I don’t feel guilty. I wasn’t even here.’ Not only does she feel some guilt, this suggests, but she unwittingly provides the reason why she does at the same time. It is only a moment in the film, easily missed, but it gives a clue to the conflict from which all the events it describes play out.
It is the strength of writing that carries The Levelling, and the force of its economy. Aubrey’s farm is a place filled with a fresh silence, where people repress their true feelings to get on with things, because they must. If they stop, they will seize up like the machines around them. It means, though, that the characters are incredibly cold. Even Clover is a distant figure at first, due to the barriers she has erected to protect herself. But her anguish trickles in as the circumstances of her brother’s death become clear, until she is pushed to a final, heart-breaking outpouring, when the floodgates are unlocked with one word: ‘Daddy.’
The Levelling is tender, sombre and wholly convincing in the way it describes the complex relationships that a parent shares with their child. The balance of responsibility constantly shifts, as does the need for one to care for the other. Despite the ruin of the countryside around them, it all feels so recognisable. It is real life, in all its muddy horror.
Country: United Kingdom Language: English Year: 2016 Director: Hope Dickson Leach Writer: Hope Dickson Leach Starring: Ellie Kendrick, David Troughton, Jack Holden Runtime: 83 minutes