The Levelling is too damned good for its likely fate: becoming another under-the-radar gem lost in an overflow of independent productions competing for a moment’s attention in a film culture that shunts so much of its best to the margins. Catch it while you can, because this powerhouse drama of grief and deep-seated family resentments demands to be seen, discussed and celebrated as a movie of the moment—not a future buried treasure.
It is tempting to use the cliché “an auspicious debut” for this first feature-length work from writer-director Hope Dickson Leach, but that probably undervalues several short films she has made since 2004, not to mention her work in various production areas on other filmmakers’ projects. The Levelling may be Dickson Leach’s first feature, but this is not the work of a beginner.
Set mainly on a rundown dairy farm in Somerset, England, the movie follows veterinary student Clover (Ellie Kendrick from Game of Thrones) as she returns home in the wake of the unexpected suicide of her brother. She’s been away for a while and not just because of school. The longstanding tensions between Clover and her father Aubrey (David Troughton) are clear even before their reunion. When someone asks her if there is anything he can do to help in her time of loss, she asks, “Can you make it my dad instead of my brother?”
Aubrey is a hard man to like—demanding and unforgiving in one moment, self-pitying in the next. At times he seems just an old school “tough love” parent, while at others he is remote and truly callous. A hard-drinking loner, his rough ways have driven Clover’s determination to be everything he is not (including a vegetarian). But they share a stubbornness that seems to have left both without much joy in their lives.
Clover is as disciplined as her father is chaotic, so her return home becomes even more traumatic when she finds the family house has been abandoned after the insurance company would not pay for severe flood damage. So Aubrey has simply relocated to a trailer home, leaving the house to rot with the blood spatter from his son’s suicide still on the walls of one room.
Clover stays for several days to help with funeral arrangements and tries to uncover what led her brother to choose his sudden exit. As past disputes are illuminated, Dickson Leach’s script graces Aubrey with more and more humanity. The father-daughter relationship takes on true complexity, seesawing between the possibility of an irreparable rift or mutual forgiveness.
The Levelling is obviously not the choice for a light evening’s entertainment, but despite its grim subject matter and emotional intensity, it is not a “downer.” Anger and heartbreak may dominate the characters, but Dickson Leach balances that with moments of quiet and stillness, often holding a shot for an extended moment after a character leaves the scene.
The life and death that goes on around the farm—from birds flying in formation to badgers buried in the ground—is captured with a mixture of realism and poetic stylistic digressions. Brief views of rabbits, badgers and dogs running through weeds or swimming come across as beautifully composed dream sequences.
The performances here are simply flawless. Kendrick plays Clover as if she’s fighting every moment to keep from completely falling apart. It’s an unforgettable portrayal of someone wholly at the mercy of an inner battle between rage and insurmountable sadness. Troughton is every bit her equal, slowly exposing the vulnerability and self-loathing under Aubrey’s brusque manner. As the late brother’s best friend, Jack Holden also impresses. In limited screen time, he makes a major impact as Clover’s guide to her sibling’s dark secrets.
Movies this serious and sad are a hard sell, even for those who venture regularly outside of escapist cinema. But in its lean 84 minutes, The Levelling digs deep into the roots of family dysfunction and the deepest recesses of mourning for an experience that will stay with you. It is tough, real and rewarding.
The Levelling. Written and directed by Hope Dickson Leach. Cinematography by Nanu Segal. Starring Ellie Kendrick, David Troughton and Jack Holden.
84 mins. No MPAA rating.
Opens Friday, March 24, at Facets Cinémathèque.